*AUTHOR'S NOTE: This response to a published statement
by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop
Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop
Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V.
Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed under somewhat constricting
circumstance. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement
appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing
paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys
were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance
unaltered, I have indulged in the author's prerogative of polishing it
LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL
MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:
April 16, 1963
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your
recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."
Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought
to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would
have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course
of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since
I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms
are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what
I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been
influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have
the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in
Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across
the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our
affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us
to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were
deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived
up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here
because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just
as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried
their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns,
and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the
gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so
am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities
and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about
what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied
in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects
all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial
"outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can
never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your
statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the
conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none
of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social
analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying
causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham,
but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure
left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of
the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification;
and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham.
There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this
community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city
in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes
have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been
more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than
in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the
case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate
with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in
Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's
economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises
were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating
racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed
to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by,
we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs,
briefly removed, returned; the others remained.
As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the
shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except
to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies
as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the
national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to
undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops
on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept
blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"
We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season,
realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period
of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be
the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time
to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham's mayoralty election was coming
up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election
day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene
"Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided
again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations
could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to
see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after
postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action
program could be delayed no longer.
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth?
Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling, for
negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent
direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension
that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to
confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no
longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work
of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess
that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent
tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which
is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to
create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage
of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis
and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies
to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from
the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so
crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I
therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our
beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue
rather than dialogue.
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I
and my associates have taken .in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked:
"Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only
answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration
must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act.
We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell
as mayor. will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell
is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists,
dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell
will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to
desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees
of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a
single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.
Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give
up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and
voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has
reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily
given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly,
I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed"
in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the
ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always
meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists,
that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given
rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward
gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy
pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is
easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to
say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and
fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you
have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers
and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro
brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an
affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your
speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter
why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised
on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that
Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority
beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort
her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking:
"Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take
a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night
in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will
accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs
reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger,"
your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name
becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected
title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the
fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite
knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer
resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"
then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes
a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing
to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand
our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.
This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people
to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in
the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for
us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: "How can you advocate
breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that
there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to
advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility
to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey
unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no
law at all"
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine
whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares
with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is
out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas
Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law
and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law
that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are
unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated
a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for
an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status
of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and
sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said
that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of
man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme
Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation
ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An
unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels
a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is
difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a
majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow
itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted
on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had
no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature
of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically
elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent
Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in
which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not
a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances
be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For
instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.
Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit
for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to
maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege
of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to ace the distinction I am trying to point out.
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid
segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law
must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him
is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order
to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality
expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.
It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral
law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who
were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping
blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced
civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented
a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was
"legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was
"illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany.
Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have
aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist
country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed,
I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely
disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable
conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward
freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but
the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who
prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive
peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree
with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of
direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable
for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and
who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than
absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance
is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order
exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in
this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the
flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand
that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition
from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted
his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men
will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we
who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension.
We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like
a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be
opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light,
injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates,
to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before
it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful,
must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical
assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession
of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning
Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical
inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they
made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique
God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated
the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal
courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to
cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the
quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning
time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter
from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the
colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible
that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity
almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of
Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic
misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is
something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively
or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have
used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We
will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words
and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good
people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes
through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God,
and without this 'hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces
of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that
the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the
promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative
psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from
the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At fist I was rather
disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as
those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the
middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of
complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years
of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness"
that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class
Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and
because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive
to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and
hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed
in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the
nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement.
Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial
discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith
in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have
concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need
emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and
despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way
of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the
influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral
part of our struggle.
If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South
would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced
that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble-rousers" and "outside agitators"
those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to
support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration
and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies
a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom
eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American
Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom,
and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously
or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his
black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South
America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense
of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes
this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily
understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many
pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them.
So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let
him go on freedom rides--and try to understand why he must do so. If his
repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek
expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.
So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather,
I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled
into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach
is being termed extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,
as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure
of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love
your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,
and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was
not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist
for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise,
so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my
days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln:
"This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal
..." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind
of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension
of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified.
We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime---the
crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell
below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for
love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps
the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was
too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized
that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans
and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the
vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent
and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white
brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution
and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but
they are big in quality. Some---such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry
Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle---have
written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have
marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished
in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of
policemen who view them as "dirty nigger lovers." Unlike so many of their
moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the
moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the
disease of segregation.
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly
disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there
are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each
of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you,
Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming
Negroes to your worship service on a non segregated basis. I commend the
Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that
I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of
those negative .critics who can always find. something wrong with the
church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church;
who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual
blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest
in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported
by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis
of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been
outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting
its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous
and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope
that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice
of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel
through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had
hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers
to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have
longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration
is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst
of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen
stand on the sideline and mouth pious. irrelevancies and sanctimonious
trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial
and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social
issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched
many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion
which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul,
between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all
the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn
mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty
spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her
massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself
asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were
their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition
and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion
call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when
bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons
of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I
have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears
have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there
is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l
am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the
great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.
But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect
and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when
the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what
they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that
recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat
that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered
a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to
convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside
agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they
were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in
number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to
be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought
an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak,
ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender
of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church,
the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's
silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's
church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church,
it vi lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed
as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has
turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion
too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church
within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But
again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized
religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and
joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left
their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia,
with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides
for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jai with us. Some have been dismissed
from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow
ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger
than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has
preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They
have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive
hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have
no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle
in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will
reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation,
because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may
be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims
landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the
majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of
history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored
in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes
of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and
yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.
If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition
we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred
heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement
that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police
force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you
would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs
sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you
would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly
and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to
watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you
were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were
to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food
because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your
praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in
handing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves
rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the
evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently
preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure
as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use
immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just
as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral
ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent
in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used
the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice.
As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham
for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing
discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize
its real heroes. There will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense
of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with
the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. There
will be the old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old
woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and
with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded
with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness:
"My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." There will be the young high
school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host
of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters
and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will
know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters,
they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream
and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby
bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were
dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution
and the Declaration of Independence.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much
too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have
been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what
else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write
long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and
indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have
said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience
that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God
to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances
will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist
or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass
away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched
communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of
love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.