As the events of the Birmingham Campaign intensified on the city’s streets, Martin Luther King, Jr., composed a letter from his prison cell in Birmingham in response to local religious leaders’ criticisms of the campaign: “Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” (King, Why, 94–95).
King’s 12 April 1963 arrest for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations took place just over a week after the campaign’s commencement. In an effort to revive the campaign, King and Ralph Abernathy had donned work clothes and marched from Sixth Avenue Baptist Church into a waiting police wagon. The day of his arrest, eight Birmingham clergy members wrote a criticism of the campaign that was published in the Birmingham News, calling its direct action strategy “unwise and untimely” and appealing “to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense” (“White Clergymen Urge”).
Following the initial circulation of King’s letter in Birmingham as a mimeographed copy, it was published in a variety of formats: as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee and as an article in periodicals such as Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, the New York Post, and Ebony magazine. The first half of the letter was introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D–NY) and published in the Congressional Record. One year later, King revised the letter and presented it as a chapter in his 1964 memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, Why We Can’t Wait, a book modeled after the basic themes set out in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In Why We Can’t Wait, King recalled in an author’s note accompanying the letter’s republication how the letter was written. It was begun on pieces of newspaper, continued on bits of paper supplied by a black trustee, and finished on paper pads left by King’s attorneys. After countering the charge that he was an “outside agitator” in the body of the letter, King sought to explain the value of a “nonviolent campaign” and its “four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (King, Why, 79). He went on to explain that the purpose of direct action was to create a crisis situation out of which negotiation could emerge.
The body of King’s letter called into question the clergy’s charge of “impatience” on the part of the African American community and of the “extreme” level of the campaign’s actions (“White Clergymen Urge”). “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” King wrote. “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’” (King, Why, 83). He articulated the resentment felt “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King, Why, 84). King justified the tactic of civil disobedience by stating that, just as the Bible’s Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws and colonists staged the Boston Tea Party, he refused to submit to laws and injunctions that were employed to uphold segregation and deny citizens their rights to peacefully assemble and protest.
King also decried the inaction of white moderates such as the clergymen, charging that human progress “comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation” (King, Why, 89). He prided himself as being among “extremists” such as Jesus, the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln, and observed that the country as a whole and the South in particular stood in need of creative men of extreme action. In closing, he hoped to meet the eight fellow clergymen who authored the first letter.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
King, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Ebony (August 1963): 23–32.
King, “From the Birmingham Jail,” Christianity and Crisis 23 (27 May 1963): 89–91.
King, “From the Birmingham Jail,” Christian Century 80 (12 June 1963): 767–773.
King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, May 1963).
King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
Reverend Martin Luther King Writes from Birmingham City Jail—Part I, 88th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (11 July 1963): A 4366–4368.
“White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations,” Birmingham News, 13 April 1963.