Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail was an open letter which he wrote on scraps of newspaper from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and then had his lawyers smuggle out. It was originally intended for publication in The New York Times Magazine, but the magazine declined to publish what would become one of the most influential civil rights texts of the 1960s.
King was in jail in Birmingham because of his leading role in a campaign of non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the city, which had what was commonly-regarded as one of the most hardbitten, extreme segregationist regimes in the United States. As always, the goal of King and his allies and followers - and it's important to remember that the civil rights campaign required a critical mass of people willing to expose their bodies to the blows of the police, not just leaders - was to draw attention to the regime and force it to change. King was arrested in the course of protests, his followers refused to bail him because they wanted the city to receive negative publicity for his arrest, and King set to writing his famous letter.
The letter was a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergy entitled "a call to unity". The clergy had criticized the Birmingham campaign, saying that while African-Americans had real grievances, they were going about addressing them in the wrong way. According to these eight, the courts and not the streets were the proper place to advance civil rights; and they further blamed King as an "outsider" for coming into the city and stirring up the situation. Change would come, they said, but slowly; and disorder and illegal activity were not the way to bring it about. They even went so far as to praise the Birmingham police for keeping "order".
Martin Luther King was not amused, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail was his answer. It was a masterpiece of composition, drawing on the two mainsprings of western civilization - Ancient Greece and the Judeo-Christian heritage - and adding allusions from the American tradition, including Jefferson and Lincoln, to build an argument in favour of rapid social action to end segregation and give African-Americans their rights as American citizens. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!'", he wrote. "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'."
King directed his most stinging criticism against those who could not see the need for urgency. "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate," he wrote. "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'." He added that he was also disappointed with the leadership of the white church, no doubt bearing the eight clergymen from Alabama directly in mind.
Urgency, he argued, was necessary to keep the civil rights movement within non-violent boundaries. "Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever," he noted, adding that across the world people of colour were gaining their freedom as western colonial empires collapsed and countries in Asia and Africa gained independence. The same "yearning" animated the civil rights movement, and he said it was illogical to think that the frustrations and anger built up by centuries of oppression would not find some outlet: "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".
"If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood," he went on. "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".
King's antagonists among Alabama's white clergy were interested in law and order, but King pointed out the difference between a just and an unjust law. It was immoral, he said, to allow an unjust social order to continue even if the state of affairs appeared outwardly peaceful; it was right to challenge that order "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". The idea was not new, but the timing, the rhetoric, and the person were right. By suggesting that justice was indivisible - "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" - King continued to push civil rights to the forefront of the American conversation. Soon, he would have his victory.