Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta in 1929. He advanced through school quickly, skipping two grades and entering Morehouse College at the age of fifteen. He followed his father into the ministry, attending Crozer Theological Seminary where he was valedictorian and president of his senior class. He received a PhD from Boston University in 1955.
While pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King was drawn into that city’s famous bus boycott and a life of social activism. He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35.
He is best known for his stirring sermons and speeches, but also wrote many columns, op-ed pieces, essays, and books, including Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), Why We Can’t Wait (1964), and The Trumpet of Consciousness (1967).
King was assassinated April 4, 1968 while in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking garbage workers.
King’s letter is addressed to a group of eight white, moderate Birmingham clergymen who had published “A Call for Unity,” in which they criticized non-violent direct action, labeled King an outside agitator, and argued that the courts alone should deal with civil rights. Though the piece is ostensibly addressed to these eight ministers and always keeps them and their arguments in mind, King means to speak to anyone who might have hesitations about the strategy being employed in Birmingham.
King argues logically, displays much learning (as in its allusions not only to the Bible, but also to Reinhold Niebuhr, St. Augustine, St. Augustus, and Martin Buber), rises often to abstract and careful logic (as in its explanation of nonviolent civil disobedience and the difference between just and unjust laws), and regularly lifts its personal witness to lyrical heights, especially in a famous 316-word sentence that enacts America’s delay of justice, a waiting that has, says King, always meant never.
Essay’s Immediate Context
On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, Montgomery Sheriff Bull Connor arrested King, Ralph Abernathy, and fifty-two other people for marching in violation of an injunction prohibiting any “parading” or “demonstrating,” including even “conduct customarily known as ‘knell-ins’ in churches.” King was put in solitary confinement. Four days later, he wrote, first in the margins of the New York Times and later on paper smuggled in by his lawyer and a Negro trusty, this “letter” to Birmingham white clergy.
Speaking as a fellow minister, King explained that the Black citizens of Birmingham had invited him and his colleagues to the city, Jesus also spoke against injustice, Paul too had been called an “outsider,” and that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King’s letter was excerpted without permission in the New York Post Sunday Magazine (May 19, 1963), and then published in its entirety and with permission under various titles throughout the summer of 1963 in Liberation, The Christian Century, The New Leader, Witness, The Mennonite, The Atlantic Monthly, and as an American Friends Service Committee pamphlet. It was revised and collected in Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and has since been widely taught in writing, literature and American history classes.
King Jr, Martin L. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Liberation June 1963.
_____. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Christian Century 12 June 1963.
_____. “The Negro Is Your Brother.” The Atlantic Monthly Aug. 1963.
_____. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.