I Have a Dream / Letter from Birmingham Jail

By Martin Luther King Jr.

2,136 ratings - 4.6* vote

In 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' Martin Luther King Jr. explains why blacks can no longer be victims of inequality. Also features King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which was delivered to 250,000 civil rights marchers In 'Letter from Birmingham Jail,' Martin Luther King Jr. explains why blacks can no longer be victims of inequality. Also features King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which was delivered to 250,000 civil rights marchers

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Book details

Paperback, 59 pages
January 1st 2007 by Perfection Learning

(first published 1963)

Original Title
Letter from Birmingham Jail/ I Have a Dream (Tale Blazers)
ISBN
1563127849 (ISBN13: 9781563127847)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

leynes

BURY ME WITH THIS BOOK! Okay, that's maybe a little melodramatic BUT why isn't this required reading????? I don't know about schools in the United States (I hope it is required reading there.. if not, WTF?) but I'm talking about schools in Germany, schools around the world? Why are we taught so much uninteresting and irrelevant shit when books like these are out there? Why have we never learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States? I understand why German schools focus on German history, this is all well and good, but why do we learn about the founding of the United States (from an extreme white/ privileged perspective, without any focus whatsoever on slavery) and not about the resulting problems of the so highly praised Declaration of Independance??? I am a little salty right now, but Thomas fucking Jefferson can kiss my sweet ass. I swear to God, I don't care that he made ice cream and french fries popular, that man was a fucking hypocrite. (And I am aware that it is stupid and unproductive to lay guilt on individuals instead of laying it against a system, but as I said before, I am a little petty today, so fuck off.)
Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Not only is it interesting for German students to learn about other cultures and communities and their struggles, NO it is also fucking important to learn about nonviolent resistance. Call me an uneducated ass (I won't contradict you... but whose fault is it that I was never taught about these things?), but I didn't know that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement did all they could in favor of a NONVIOLENT protest. They wanted to fight institutionalized racism and segregation with peaceful sit-ins and coordinated demonstrations and marches. Why didn't I know that was a thing? Why wasn't I taught that the means of the Civil Rights Movement weren't bloody and unjust? (Of course I am only speaking for myself, and my sorry excuse for a high school!)

But enough of my ramble, let's get into the good stuff. This wonderful little book contains Dr King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and his "I Have a Dream"-speech. Both are one of the most important pieces of literature/ history that I ever had the pleasure of reading!

Letter from Birmingham Jail
The Letter from Birmingham Jail is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance, and that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.

The Birmingham Campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injuction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested alongside other activists and marchers.

King was met with unusually harsh conditions in Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained "A Call for Unity" (aka the audacity of white people): a statement made by eight white Alabama clergyman against King and his methods. The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response - The Letter from Birmingham Jail.

He wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the editing could begin. ROUND OF FUCKING APPLAUSE. The trial and error that these men had to go through is beyond me.

King starts out in the most petty way possible, and I am so happy for that. He says that he usually doesn't pause to answer criticism, because he would have no time for constructive work, he has the time now because white people put him in fucking jail. He begins to explain why he is in Birmingham in the first place: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." He feels compelled to bring freedom and morality beyond the bounds of his home town, and since Birmingham is one of the most racially segregrated cities (at his time), he is needed there, in the spirit of a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the citiy's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

He talks about his nonviolent campaign, and how direct action is the only possibility now, because Civil Rights leaders tried to negotiate with e.g. merchants and other whites in power, but these negotiations lead to nothing. "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."

King also stresses that every black activist and marcher is conscious that he is, sadly, acting against the (fucked up) law, and therefore willing to go to jail for this higher cause. And that was so fucking important to me, because it is something that I haven't considered before.

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. [...] I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

He stresses that nonviolent pressure is needed, if the country is to change. It is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. [...] We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

I especially enjoyed the passages in which he refuted the white call for endurance, that black people simply should wait, and everything would turn out fine for them... BITCH WHEEEREEE??? King says that for the Negro "wait" means "never" - "justice too long delayed is justice denied." He mirrors Solomon Northup's sentiment that "perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'" I know I am about to quote a fucking long passage, but it's a fucking important passage, and it's important that you hear it:
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 [...] and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominious clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people, [...] when your first name becomes "nigger", your middle name "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John", [...] 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.

He then proceeds to go on a rant on the difference between laws that are just and laws that are unjust, because apparently the white clergymen were too stupid (aka too willfully ignorant) to know the difference. Dr King says: "Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority." GOSH that he had to explain that to people who styled themselves Christians is beyond me. "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." Thank you very much!!!!

Then he talks about how every Civil Rights activist and marcher is willingly breaking UNJUST laws, because they know that they act on a ground of a higher moral. They willingly accept the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice. ROUND OF FUCKING APPLAUSE. No for real though, the amount of awe and respect I have for these people...

He then goes on a rant about the "white moderate", and that people who are willfully ignorant, who do NOTHING instead of SOMETHING are just as bad as members of the Ku Klux Klan. "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."
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.

He then goes on to vent his disappointment with the white church and its leadership... He has witnessed, in the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, white churchmen stand on the side-line mouthing pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. He says how dangerous it is to blindly be an archdefender of the status quo, because the silence of the church consoles the power structure of the average community. Regardless of whether the church will come to his aid or not, Dr King has no despair about the future. He knows that eventually they will reach their goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation.
Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independance across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebearers labored in this country without wages; [...] 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.
AND ANOTHER QUOTE BECAUSE HE IS JUST THAT GOOOOOOOD
I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negros. I doubt that you would so quickly commend policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhuame treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse of Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to observe them, as I did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in the praise of the Birmingham police department.


I Have A Dream
I listened to that speech and read it simultaneously, marking the parts where he got the most applause, the things he left out of his speech. It was truly fascinating. If you ever feel the urge to analyse a speech, this is a great example...

I won't get into too much detail here because this amazing speech basically mirrors all the sentiments that he already laid down in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail"... Even though I have to say, that the letter is much more factual, whereas the speech is much more emotional and "catchy"... but I mean 250,000 fucking marchers were present that daaaay, so it's clear that he needed words that would electrify the masses. I like how firm and sure he was in his assessments, he always talked about how they WILL regain their freedom, how they HAVE COME to remind America of their injustices, how they ARE RISING UP to claim their rights etc... It was very wonderful to see, especially the affirmative response that he got from his listeners... All the time you could hear someone from the audience yelling "YES" or "YEAH". It made my heart sing!
And again in this speech Dr King showed what a great leader he is, because he insisted on a NONVIOLENT protest, he warned the audience to not be filled with hatred, injustices should be met with "soul force" instead of "physical force". Round of fucking applause!!!
So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. [...]
I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I got fucking chills. This was phenomenal. Thank you so much, Dr King and every marcher and activist that fought for this cause, thank you for your efforts, your blood, sweat and tears, thank your for your lives! It is because of these people that I, as a biracial girl, have the privileges that I have today. Of course the world is not perfect, and there's lots left to be improved, but what these people achieved 60 years ago is fucking phenomenal. I have a dream today! I am beyond grateful!

Duane

Although this is a perfect day to read these inspiring words of Martin Luther King, Jr., any day will work. Take a couple of hours and discover one of the greatest American history lessons ever offered.

Literary Ames {Against GR Censorship}

I am the product of MLK's "dream" as the daughter of a black mother and white father. Who knows, I might not be here if people like him hadn't fought for racial equality and against segregation.

Brilliant free BBC audio of "I Have A Dream" read by Maya Angelou, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ndileka Mandela (granddaughter of Nelson Mandela), Stevie Wonder, Doreen Lawrence (mother of murdered British teenager Stephen Lawrence), Malala Yousafzai (sixteen-year-old student from Swat in Pakistan, shot by the Taliban for going to school), and a few others.

Each reader seemed to have read a passage personally relevant to them, bringing new meaning to MLK's eloquent words from his impassioned speech delivered to hundreds of thousands of people in Washington 50 years ago, the anniversary of which was yesterday (28th August 2013).

1st read: 29th Aug 2013 of BBC audio
2nd read: 9th Sep 2013 of Paperback

Chris Gordon

“I Have a Dream.”

These four words form one of the most important speeches ever to be spoken in American history, delivered by a man whose importance to the Civil Rights Movement can never be overstated. Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary, a man who dreamed of a racially equal America for all men and women. His battle for equality was hard-fought, ultimately costing him his life, yet its impact did not die with him. Were it not for the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., racial equality under the law may never have come to pass when it had, and perhaps America would still be blighted to this day by a racially divided society, one whose soul was out of touch with the American ideals laid forth by our Founding Fathers in the Constitution. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. was, is, and forever will remain an American hero who's legacy lives on to this day.

Two of Dr. King's most influential works are collected here in this short paperback: his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The first work is his letter written whilst incarcerated after staging one of his legendary nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In it, he addressed his fellow clergymen after their public disavowal of his protesting. As a man of the Church himself, Dr. King felt it necessary to address their concerns in great detail so as to open their minds to the just endeavors for which he so fervently fought. Unfortunately, many religious bodies and leaders had been absent from the fight for racial equality, a fact that greatly concerned Martin Luther King Jr. Thus, in his letter, he goes through the gamut of outlining why his crusade is a just one, and how his nonviolent direct action would bring light to the societal tensions which would then act as the catalyst for positive change.

Dr. King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a fascinating read throughout and a compelling account of one man's experiences with inequality. Surely, this letter is one that all Americans who value equal rights should read and familiarize themselves with. Though initially addressed only to his fellow clergymen, this letter is a message addressed in spirit to every American citizen. Though the 1960s have passed and the issues plaguing America then are not the same as those plaguing us now, the heart of his letter remains the same: injustice must be met with a strong, determined will if it is ever to be reversed. Dr. King was one such agent of change whose determination was so strong as to inspire an entire nation to change its misguided ways and instead embrace the concept of justice for all.

The second half of this book reprints Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered to 250,000 Civil Rights advocates marching in Washington D.C. in 1963. Addressing a crowd of black and white men and women who sought equality for all regardless of their skin color, Dr. King gave one of the greatest speeches in American history; the storied legacy of the “I Have a Dream” speech speaks for itself. His harrowing words about the then-current state of affairs in the black community were heart-wrenching to read, yet his message for nonviolent protest and perseverance even in the face of immense adversity were uplifting. His speech balanced urgency and hope seamlessly, never making the speech too pessimistic to discourage any action nor so optimistic as to inspire complacency. Dr. King's Dream for black children to be able to play with white children without fear of persecution was a standout sentiment in his speech full of memorable lines; without such a visionary aspiration for all Americans, I would never have had the pleasure of befriending one of my closest friends. It's hard to lavish the appropriate amount of praise unto a speech that is so significant to history, so all I have further to say is go read it for yourself, lest you wish to deprive yourself of one of America's all-time greatest moments.

Upon finishing my reading of both works by Dr. King, I came to the disheartening realization that many of his sentiments regarding the fight for equality would be widely rejected by today's "activists" (or craptivists, as they are more appropriately termed). As Dr. King was a staunch advocate for nonviolent protest, I can envision the likes of Antifa and Black Lives Matter disavowing him for not taking a strong enough stance for change (i.e. a violent approach). These domestic terrorist organizations pride themselves on being violent and intimidating, whereas Martin Luther King Jr. prided himself on accomplishing change via peaceful actions; clearly their philosophies clash with one another, rendering them incompatible in this backwards day and age. It is sad to think that a man as great as Dr. King would be relegated mostly to the back of people's minds – not being controversial or angry enough to compete with the likes of homegrown terrorists – due to the simple fact that he wished to bring about change without harming somebody, damaging property, or further dividing people based on their differences. If only today's activists could reach the heart of Dr. King's message and realize that long-lasting, positive change can only come about through peaceful, nonviolent, unifying actions, then perhaps America would not find itself in the midst of an all-out culture war full of malice and destruction which seems to be creating anew the racial divides which Martin Luther King Jr. once fought so hard against. We desperately need this generation's Martin Luther King Jr. to show his or her face in order to bridge this ever-increasing divide, but no such man or woman seems to be in sight just yet.

Without hesitation, Martin Luther King Jr.'s works are a must-read for all Americans. Though I purchased my copy of his letter and speech, both can readily and easily be found online for free, so there is no excuse for you not having read either one. Hopefully, if enough people get in touch with their inner-Dr. King, maybe there can be some hope for the future of this country despite its ever-growing differences thanks to those whose perogatives fall in-line with racist sentiments as opposed to egalitarian ones. Though it may be hard to remain hopeful, just knowing that a man like Martin Luther King Jr. existed at all is proof enough that another figure like him may one day show him/herself to the country to bring about some desperately needed change to our culture once again.

Kier Scrivener

This was incredible full of descriptive speech and metaphors. Dr. King was such and incredible speaker and influencer. I think there is not an error I can place on the entirety of this speech.

Sadly, nearly three score later so much is still to be done and freedom to be grasped.


Below our thoughts while reading:

I funnily, started with the Gettysburg Address by Lincoln and then read this while listening to Hamilton all mentioned by one another in historical order.

"that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Is the emancipation proclamation.
"This is the beacon of light for (those) who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice"

"One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean
of material prosperity."

He improvised much of this. Inspiring, beautiful and true. His metaphors are immaculate!

"It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. " Prophetic words, Dr. King.
"Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

"We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of
police brutality. " Saying the same message for 55 years.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Barnabas Piper

Wow.

Barry

After finishing the chapter in “Color of Compromise” about the church’s reaction to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, I thought I should reread “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Here’s my review from when I last read it a year ago:

I read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” again today as part of “The Radical King.” I know I say this about a lot of books, but this should be mandatory reading for high schoolers. Maybe it is in many places. I’m sure I don’t have anything original to say about the importance or eloquence of MLK, but let me just drop in a couple quotes that spoke to me today:

“I would agree with St Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” ...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 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.”

“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.”

Jena

The eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr. is stunning, and there's no finer showcase of his gift with words than "Letter From Burmingham Jail" and the "I Have a Dream" speech. From a jail cell in Alabama, King stands up for the right of African-Americans to demand equality in a country that has promised this gift to all its citizens. His message was powerful in the 1960's, but it is no less relevant today. Segregation may hide itself better in the 21st century, but it hasn't disappeared completely, and until it does, this book should be required reading for all students of history and American society. The words are beautiful, the message is priceless, and the man is a legend.

Ryan

Judging these speeches by historical impact, they were clearly effective. I Have a Dream probably ages better, and was always intended for a broader public audience, but I think Letter from a Birmingham Jail was more effective in dividing opposition and trying to cleave off the "white moderates" from supporting law and order and instead supporting protests.

Tammy Anderson

This was never required reading for any of my high school or college courses, but after a study at my church on racial reconciliation I decided to read this letter and speech. I’m so glad I did. The words of MLK, Jr are more powerful and eloquent than I remember and shows me that we still have work to do.

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