Letter from the Birmingham Jail

By Martin Luther King Jr.

5,586 ratings - 4.71* vote

There is an alternate edition published under ISBN13: 9780241339466.Martin Luther King, Jr. rarely had time to answer his critics. But on April 16, 1963, he was confined to the Birmingham jail, serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations. "Alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell," King pondered a letter that fellow clergymen had pu There is an alternate edition published under ISBN13: 9780241339466.Martin Luther King, Jr. rarely had time to

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Book details

Hardcover, 35 pages
August 1st 1994 by HarperOne

(first published April 16th 1963)

Original Title
Letter from Birmingham Jail
0062509551 (ISBN13: 9780062509550)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


A link is provided here for anyone who would like to read this letter: http://www.wuhsd.org/cms/lib/CA010002...

Wonderful, powerful words. It's crazy to think that over 50 years later the same issues are STILL issues.

"You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails so express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations." <----Now THAT is a point to ponder! It amazes me that those in charge have to be told that. Amazes me and saddens me.

I respect what this man did, not just for African-Americans, but for the world.

January 18, 2015 Edited to add: Following the protests in the States right now in what many are calling the second Civil Rights movement reminds me that there's a lot more work to do. Calling protesters in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere thugs instead of investigating why people feel their only option is to protest is one of the many problems we're dealing with.

Iris P

Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Love this picture of MLK smiling!

Until now I had only read the most famous quotes of MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail but I had never taken the time to read the full text.

To many, along with his "I Have A Dream" speech, this letter represents King's most relevant and impactful public statement, because it came at a crucial time when both he and the Civil Rights Movement were being heavily criticized and facing lots of pressure from both the political left and the right.

The year was 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of most segregated cities in the country. A series of marches and sit-ins, known as the "Birmingham Campaign", had been organized by several civil rights organizations.

According to Wikipedia:
"On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12 (Good Friday), King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, and other marchers while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on."
This open letter was a response to a public statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen while King was still in jail. Even though they agree that racial segregation and the mistreatment of African Americans was unacceptable, they accused MLK of being an extremist and of not having the patience to wait for the courts to sort out these issues.

What struck me the most about this powerful document was King's eloquence and ability to explain why he thought this was the right time to demand these changes.

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King is arrested on a charge of "Loitering" in Birminghan

Like Gandhi and Mandela, MLK was passionate and convinced about his cause, but he also had a keen sense of the national political climate and recognized the importance of his commitment to a nonviolent resistance approach. He always knew that the success or failure of this movement hanged in its ability to remain a peaceful one.

It's difficult to believe that many in America considered King and the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement "extremists". Reading this letter you can feel his sense of urgency in explaining to this fellow clergymen - and the nation at large- why he felt that was not a fair criticism.

He explains:
"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it...The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized."

Explaining why it'll never be the "perfect" time to demand changes, he says:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

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MLK mugshot

In response to the criticism on why King's advocated to "break some laws while obeying others", he argues there is a difference between just vs unjust laws:
"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."

This is a short but powerful, well articulated document that is now an important part of the civil rights history and a patrimony not only to Americans but to the World.

If you are interesting in reading the full text, you can read it here

The audiobook version I listened to, which is narrated by Dion Graham is fantastic. Graham did a great job at recreating MLK's very unique enunciation and oratory style. A few minutes into the audiobook, I thought I was actually listening to Dr. King reading his letter.

This a wonderful way to commemorate Black History Month!


This "Birmingham jail" letter by MLK, Jr. and the UN Declaration of Human Rights are the only two "required readings" across all sections of Global Ethics at my college. Today we can recall the now famous lines: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." The full letter is here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/a....

I got a MLK, Jr. Award for my anti-racism work with largely "White on White" groups in New Hampshire schools twenty years ago. While the first Black president in the US still a momentous occasion, as Obama prepared to leave the office, I'm afraid we're more racist than less now, with more overt racism than what was covert for many years. Youth, still, seem to be marching us into a post-racial future, but some of us oldsters are getting tired of the wait.

Dave Schaafsma

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

Here’s the full letter:


Debbie "DJ"

The perfect day to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's address to the eight white clergymen who called his activities in Birmingham "unwise & untimely. Dr. King has an extraordinary ability with words be they in speaking or writing. This impassioned response is one I will not forget. I do find it terribly sad that we are still have so far to go. While I found myself writing down many of his words, one caught my eye "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." Give this a read, another reviewer provides a direct link.

Lance Greenfield

I have a reputation for writing powerful, effective letters, and I am proud to say that I have successfully fought for the rights of many individuals against the bigger society who have attempted to repress them. However, this letter is many leagues above any letter that I have ever written!

It is inspiring. I wonder if there is any public record of the response from the eight clergymen to whom this open letter was addressed?

My reading of this letter, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr Day (2013), was prompted by reading Rowena's review.

MLK makes a fantastic, reasoned case for the validity of nonviolent direct action to achieve the objective of bringing those who refuse to negotiate to the table.

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.

He also addresses the assertion, made by the aforementioned clergymen, that his acitivities in Birmingham, Alabama, were "unwise and untimely."

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action
campaign that was "well timed" in view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

His explanation, including examples, of the difference between just and unjust law are nothing short of superb.

MLK also uses many quotes from, and cites actions of, philosophers, biblical characters and American presidents. I particularly liked the references to Socrates. And, whether you believe in the truth of the Bible or not, you have to admire the way that he uses excerpts from that book to persuade his fellow religious leaders. There is no way that they can challenge him without endangering their integrity in their own churches and synagogues.

Finally, MLK apologises for the length of his letter, but justifies it by telling the recipients that he has long hours to while away whilst incarcerated in Birmingham Jail.

Do I recommend it? Much more than that, I urge you to go and read it now at this link! It will only take you a few minutes, and you will agree with me, when you reach the end, that your time was well spent.

Rachel Aranda

What can I say that hasn't been said already about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a person, his writings, and his speeches? It's all been said really.. Still I feel like I can add a little too this review.

Dr. King Jr. is a man that inspires me, and has ever since I was a kid, for his eloquence, pride in his people and heritage, and fight for what he believed in. When I've gone through tough times, including sexism and racism, I've looked to him for inspiration to not lash out with violence but find other ways to get some peace from the issue.

This letter is Dr. King Jr.'s response to his critics and people who don't understand why African-Americans were protesting, picketing, etc. in Birmingham, Alabama in the form of a letter he wrote while in the local jail. While reading this letter, I was hit hard with understand why the events in Birmingham and other areas were happening. I wasn't born when these events happen so this was like looking back into a time where life was less just and harder. My heart aches for all those who have suffered in the past, but bless them for helping make this country a better place. It still hurts because there is more that needs to happen before Dr. King Jr.'s vision becomes a reality. I'm determined to do my part; this letter just motivates me to do my part to make it happen.

Leah Craig

“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?”


I don't normally read something based on the day it is, but today's page of my new book-a-day calendar was for Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and my calendar says the letter "would take its place among works by Thoreau and Lincoln as a signpost of moral argument".

Well, then and there I decided I needed to read it. The letter holds many, many quotable lines (and, sadly, relevance for today) but instead of taking those lines out of context, I recommend that you read them in context: it's not long: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/arti... .

Kath ❅

This letter is so important and still reads to be so true and so relevant. I was assigned this for school (as well as on civil disobedience which I will be reading next) though I have read it before. It's also especially relevant because yesterday I marched in the women's march in Atlanta. I live in the 5th district in Atlanta and John Lewis is my congressman (my district is doing just fine,by the way. Don't believe everything you read in a tweet). He spoke at the march yesterday and told all of us in the crowd to not let anyone turn us around. It is always important to be reminded that the time is always right to stand up against injustice. Martin Luther King Jr understood this better than anyone and we can all wish to be half the person he was. His words still bring inspiration and hope. When you're fighting it can often feel you're fighting alone but if you're fighting for what's right someone will always be standing right there with you