Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a response to white clergymen from the cell of the Birmingham City Jail in 1963. The clergymen urged King to let the civil rights issues be decided in the courts. King argued that it was imperative for the oppressed minority to assert their rights through acts of non-violent civil disobedience.

One of King’s most famous quotes is found in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He argued that “injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”1 King argued that those in the United States cannot simply hide behind the argument that they do not live in the immediate vicinity of the place where abuses of civil rights are occurring.

Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined four steps to a non-violent campaign.2 The first step required one to determine the extent of injustice by gathering the facts. The second step involved negotiations. Third, the individuals involved needed to undergo “self-purification.”3 The final step required direct action.

People often challenged King as to why he chose to obey some laws while disobeying others. King answered this challenge by defining two types of laws: just and unjust.4 Just laws, King argued, are in harmony with moral law and God’s law. Conversely, unjust laws are opposed to moral law and God’s law.

References

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon, Princeton Readings in Political Thought (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), p. 624.
  2. Ibid, p. 624.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p. 627.
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