Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

- Schaefer, Robert*
In the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined forces with the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights to protest segregation in Birmingham. The city government requested a court injunction forbidding the groups from marching. Martin Luther King declared, “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.” After his arrest, eight fellow clergymen publicly criticized King’s actions as being “unwise and untimely.” King’s letter to them — and to the world — clarifies his belief in the necessity of the nonviolent yet “illegal” campaign. King addresses many issues in his thoughtful letter, including the accusation that he is an outside agitator. King turns the argument around and claims that he is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Like Jesus, King claims that he is an “extremist for love.” The letter is an exciting (not merely academic) combination of political philosophy and theology. Lives were at stake and Birmingham was at the center of the storm. If King had failed, then the civil rights movement of the 1960s might have derailed.