There are two letters printed here:
1. A letter to Reverend King criticizing his actions
2. Reverend King’s response
Read the statement first, then the response, which is the order they’ve printed here. answer in full the questions
at the end.
“This is the public statement directed to Martin Luther King, Jr., by eight Alabama clergymen. Note their titles; note
how important each one may be in the official hierarchy of his religion.
A Call for Unity
12 April 1963
We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an appeal for law and order and common sense,”
in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could
properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully
Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible
citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent
public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part
by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But
we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues
in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan
area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that
responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,”
we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may
be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are
days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.
We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm
manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the
demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally
in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the
courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro
citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Episcopalian Bishop of Alabama
Bishop Joseph A. Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile,Birmingham
Rabbi Milton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabam~a
Bishop Paul Hardin, Methodist Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference
Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
Rev. George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
Rev. Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
Rev. Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
Letter from Birmingham Jail
16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities
“unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and 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 time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine
good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will
be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham since you have been influenced by the view which argues against
“outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an
organization operating in every southern state. with headquarters in Atlanta. Georgia, We have some eighty-five
affiliated organizations across the South. and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for human Rights.
Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate
here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed
necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members
of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here, just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left
their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the
Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman
world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond
to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and
not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects
all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who
lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham, But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a
similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to
rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with
underlying causes. It is unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist;
negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham There can be no
gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly
segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known, Negroes have experienced grossly
unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than
in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro
leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith
Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of
the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants- for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial
signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian
Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations, As the weeks and months went by, we realized
that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.
As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us, We
had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying
our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we
decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly
asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail? We
decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the
main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct
action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone
action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had
piled up enough votes to be in the run-off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so
that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated,
and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our
direct-action program could he delayed no longer.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are
quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action
seeks 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. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the
creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that
I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive,
nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in
the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half- truths to the unfettered realm of creative
analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in
society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the
door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation, Too long has our beloved Southland been
bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue,
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is
untimely. Some have asked; “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can
give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before
it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium
to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists,
dedicated to maintenance of the status quo, I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the
futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil
rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and
nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges
voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture but, as Reinhold Niebuhr
has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by
the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well- timed” in the view of those
who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” 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.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are
moving with jet speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining
a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation
to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and
brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the
midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to
explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on
television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see
ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her
personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a
five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-
country drive and find it necessary to deep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because
no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;
when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the
respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living
constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer
resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we
find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be
plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws, This is certainly a 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 obeying 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 just laws. Conversely, one has a moral
responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine 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 just 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. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in
eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality
is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. it
gives the segregation 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 not only 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.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power
majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By
the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow
itself. This is sameness made legal.
Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied
the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set
up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used
to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes
constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such
circumstances be considered democratically structured?
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of
parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade.
But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment
privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the
law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly,
lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience
tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of’ the
community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.
It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of
chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a
reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a
massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf -Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom
fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am
sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived
in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate
disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past
few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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 Councilor or the Ku
Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace
which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree
with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes
he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises
the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating
than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice
and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social
progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary
phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to
a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually,
we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden
tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can
never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air
and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and
the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate
violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money
precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth
and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?
Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God -consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will
precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the Federal courts have consistently affirmed,
it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may
precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for
freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored
people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has
taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to
earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is
something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral: it can be
used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more
effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful
words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on
wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without
this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation, We must use time creatively, in the
knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and
transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood, Now is the time to lift our national policy
from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see
my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two
opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of
long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to
segregation; and in part of the few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security
and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other
force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the
various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah
Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial
discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated
Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the
complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and
nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence
became an integral part of our struggle.
If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. 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.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is
what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something
without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist
and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the
United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one
recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public
demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release
them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to
understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression
through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. 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. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter
I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies,
bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute
you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing
stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not
Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in
jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot
survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will
we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of
justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were
crucified for the same crime, the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their
environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his
environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I had hoped that the white Moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic perhaps I expected too much. I
suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate
yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong,
persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped
the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they
are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah
Patton Boyle have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down
nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality
of policemen who view them as ‘dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have
recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its
leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken
some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past
Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this
state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.
But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do
not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a
minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual
blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt
we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be
among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement
and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent
behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this
community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which
our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision
because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is
morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I
have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In
the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say:
“Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched many churches commit
themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul,
between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer
days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing
heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings, Over and over I have
found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of
Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a
clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women
decided to rise from the dark dungeons of’ complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?” Yes, these questions
are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears
have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How
could I do Otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of
preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through
social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed
worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas
and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mires of society. Whenever the early
Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christian 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 effort and example they brought an end to such ancient
evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with 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 church’s silent -and often even vocal-sanction of things as they
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 century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment
with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save
our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the, church within the church,
as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of
organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the
struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us.
They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some
have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have
acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt
that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through
the dark mountain of disappointment.
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to
the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in
Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all
over the nation because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up
with America’s destiny. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the
majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two
centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their
masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation — and yet out of a bottomless vitality they
continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now
face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God
are embodied in our echoing demands.
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You
warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would
have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent
Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane
treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro
girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on
two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise
of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they
have conducted themselves rather “non violently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of
segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must
be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.
But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia,
but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T S. Eliot has
said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their
willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize
its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering
and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old,
oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a
sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical
profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest”; they will be the
young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and
nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will
know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for
what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing
our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of
the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
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?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience. I beg you
to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to
settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to
meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will
be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and
brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
QUESTIONS FOR CLASS.
These questions refer to the Reverend King’s letter yet the answers may in part be in “A Call for Unity” by the eight
1. What is the question or problem addressed by the writer?
2. What is the writer’s position or angle of vision?
3. What positions or views is the writer pushing against or opposing?
4. What is at stake in this argument?
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