From NPR a look at this important piece of American history-
'Letter From Birmingham Jail' 50 Years Later
"Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter
from Birmingham jail. Dr. King penned this letter as a response to white
clergymen who called his campaign of non-violent protests, quote,
"unwise and untimely," unquote, and had urged him not to intervene in
Alabama's segregationist policies."
You can read the full text of the letter here.
Here is a bit of it:
"My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement
my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my
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
constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your
sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient
"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly
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 well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and
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
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St.
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
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.
An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law
human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All
are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the
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
politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul
Tillich has 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."
"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early
rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church
merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a
that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the
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
example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice
an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being
disturbed by the
presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the
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 will lose its authenticity,
forfeit the loyalty of
millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth