Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
-Dr. Martin Luther King
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
LETTER FROM A BIRMINGHAM JAIL.
Find the letter in PDF form HERE.
During a time when the worst kind of racism and nationalism is coming from our White House – we post the letter Dr. King wrote while in the Birmingham jail, to fellow religious leaders who he felt had abandoned him. He was in solitary confinement, after a civil rights protest. According to History.com, “King was initially denied access to his lawyers or allowed to contact his wife.”
The context and reasons for this letter:
Shortly after King’s arrest, a friend smuggled in a copy of an April 12 Birmingham newspaper which included an open letter, written by eight local Christian and Jewish religious leaders, which criticized both the demonstrations and King himself, whom they considered an outside agitator. Isolated in his cell, King began working on a response. Without notes or research materials, King drafted an impassioned defense of his use of nonviolent, but direct, actions. Over the course of the letter’s 7,000 words, he turned the criticism back upon both the nation’s religious leaders and more moderate-minded white Americans, castigating them for sitting passively on the sidelines while King and others risked everything agitating for change. King drew inspiration for his words from a long line of religious and political philosophers, quoting everyone from St. Augustine and Socrates to Thomas Jefferson and then-Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, who had overseen the Supreme Court’s landmark civil rights ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
For those, including the Birmingham religious leaders, who urged caution and remained convinced that time would solve the country’s racial issues, King reminded them of Warren’s own words on the need for desegregation, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And for those who thought the Atlanta-based King had no right to interfere with issues in Alabama, King argued, in one of his most famous phrases, that he could not sit “idly by in Atlanta” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Without writing papers, King initially began by jotting down notes in the margin of the newspaper itself, before writing out portions of the work on scraps of paper he gave his attorneys, allowing a King ally, Wyatt Walker, to begin compiling the letter, which eventually ran to 21 double-spaced, typed pages. Curiously, King never sent a copy to any of the eight Birmingham clergy who he had “responded” to, leaving many to believe that he had intended it to have a much broader, national, audience all along.