Close Reading of MLK Letter

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Jake Sokolofsky (Summer 2022)

MLK in Birmingham cell (Rutgers University)

April 3, 1963, was the beginning of arguably the most well-known protest effort in American history: the Birmingham campaign. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., this widespread movement used direct action through sit-ins, marches, and boycotts to attack racial segregation in the city and provoke tension in the minds of the city’s leaders, which MLK thought would spark a much-needed change [1]. King’s techniques, however, of nonviolently confronting racism and oppressive institutions with all necessary force, not only drew criticism from more moderate reformers but also led to his arrest. While imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, MLK wrote a bitter indictment of moderate reformer’s critique of his program and methodology which would later become known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To MLK, blind commitment to “peace” and “negotiation” were the greatest stumbling block on the path to freedom and justice: moderate, in-system reform efforts, if unable to adapt to their circumstances and maintain their ideological purity, could be the most damaging force against a movement for justice and equality.

Out of the ordinary for MLK, the letter was a response to criticism he had received via a publication entitled “A Call for Unity,” written by eight White clergymen that led various parts of Birmingham’s religious community. In it, the clergymen argued that, for the sake of law and order, and so real negotiation could commence which may actually solve the problems Birmingham faced, King should stop his demonstrations and civil disobedience in favor of peaceful negotiation and settlement: “Just as we formally pointed out that ‘hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political tradition,’ we also point out that such action as to incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems” [2]. The clergymen, it seems, were leading toward the argument that the established authority and enforcement needed to respect the movement in order to make concessions for it. In their minds, the violence precipitated by King’s direct action was antithetical to his goals — instead, they must “unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.” Desegregation could only be ended through the mutual agreement of all parties involved, a reality becoming ever more distant as the violence and protests progressed.

Bishop C.C.J Carpenter, one of the authors of “A Call for Unity” (Alchetron)

King was right about the men who wrote this letter: they were, in fact, “men of genuine good will” who, at least superficially, agreed with King in the goals he sought. Rabbi Grafman, for example, spoke in opposition to Birmingham’s refusal to integrate public parks, golf courses, and swimming pools; refused to let his synagogue morally and psychologically “yield to terror and violence” after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings; and who was said by Birmingham’s first Black mayor, Richard Arrington, to be a man of high credibility who “worked to bring about change and . . . justice” [3]. Similarly, Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter was known to be a proponent of school integration, which put him under the watch of racist groups such as the White Citizens Councilors and the Ku Klux Klan and led to many threats on his life [4]. This opposition to King’s movement was more complex than straightforward racism: the eight clergyman truly believed in the same goals that King was working towards. However, as King implied throughout the letter, their moderacy and critique of his program from a more conservative angle played into the hands of those in power in a manner as to almost entirely undermine any truly emancipatory motivation these men had.

To King, these clergyman were, in some respects, more dangerous to the movement than the KKK and other explicitly racist groups. In defining his opposition, just as he defined the KKK and White Citizens Councilor, he called the Clergyman and people like them the “White moderate,” who were defined by a focus on working within established law, societal order and calm, and gradualism toward change. To King, however, that gradualism could stagnate into conservatism, hence why he described them as the “Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom.” That focus on acting solely within the established system only stagnated action, which simultaneously acted paternalistically to those who suffered under the weight of systemic oppression. King, however, seemed ambivalent as to the moral culpability of the White moderate; he described them as paternalistic, thus implying a moral judgment, but also said that they are “men of genuine good will” whose acts of injustice come more out of the “appalling silence of the good people” than through actual malevolence. This ambivalence, to King, likely served a deeper purpose: he understood the possibility that this rhetoric of passive reform could become mainstream if the tension created by the protests tilted towards the wrong ideological side.  Moreover, the same rhetoric of law and order could be coopted by sinister interests, such as the KKK or White Citizens Councilor, and in this way be used to mask their underlying motives while appearing to support exactly what “reformers” such as the White moderate supported. MLK knew that the rhetoric of the White moderate, though perhaps genuine, could have outsized consequences that would be more dangerous to the future of freedom than anything else.

Violence in Birmingham Campaign, May 1963 (ThoughtCo)

King’s recognition of the potential danger of the White moderate meant that his focus turned directly to the source of what could be coopted and misinterpreted: the insistence on law and order. Much of the foundational difference between King and the clergyman came down to their conceptions of the law, specifically in when it could morally be transgressed. As King stated, “. . . there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.'” To King, following in the footsteps of Thoreau’s civil disobedience, laws such as the ones surrounding segregation and discrimination are unjust and thus must not be followed. Preservation of “law and order” in that case, or acting only within the bounds of current law, would be merely preserving the current system of injustice and inequality. “A Call for Unity” preserved just this system, and “commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence,'” to which King replied, “it is true that they have been rather disciplined in their public handling of the demonstrators. In this sense they have been publicly ‘nonviolent.’ But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.” Even without explicit violence, the system as such nonetheless produced generational and systemic violence that required MLK and his movement to act outside of the system in order to produce change through it — to create the necessity of change through protest. The violence, however, was not merely hypothetical: just one month after the letter was written, real violence would strike the Birmingham protest and would further catalyze the Civil Rights Movement [5]. As King knew, a system built on violence and discrimination will reproduce violence and discrimination. “Law and order,” to King, was violence.

Similar in many ways, the debate about the necessity of action rose out of the debate over “law and order” and its functions as either oppression or liberation. “A Call for Unity” repeatedly stressed that the protests were “untimely” and that, with time, the reasons for protest would be dissolved through the legal system; a charitable interpretation would suggest that they sought to continue the legal fight over segregation prior to testing the boundaries of physical fighting and violence. According to King’s pragmatic side, however, the newly elected mayor of Birmingham, Albert Boutwell, though better than the ardent racist Eugene “Bull” Connor, was still a segregationist “dedicated to the task of maintaining the status quo.” Nothing fundamental about the system would change without sufficient protests in favor of desegregation; in a broader philosophic sense, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” That demand was precisely what MLK and his movement produced through their disruptions of the current system. Being told to wait until “a more convenient season,” to King, meant never, and that sentiment was indicative of a person who has never suffered under a sufficiently brutal system. Unbending commitments to “peace,” “negotiation,” and “waiting for the right time,” therefore, if unable to maintain the quest for justice, could amount to merely the preservation of the status quo.

According to King, the centuries of suffering caused by slavery and racial oppression induced an urge to freedom in those afflicted by it, for “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” The White moderate, by holding off this urge for freedom and justice as is engrained in the heart of every man, was thus the greatest stumbling block to the future of Black America. They were the force that, more powerfully than the KKK or White Citizens Councilor, would restrict urges toward liberation out of arbitrary, unbending, and inexact commitments to peace, negotiation, and law and order. To King, nothing could be more immoral.




[1] “Birmingham Campaign,” Stanford, [WEB]; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963, [WEB]

[2] “Statement by Alabama Clergymen,” Stanford, [WEB].

[3] S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2001).

[4] “Not-so-peaceful city: Retired priest recalls Birmingham in the days his father was bishop,” Episcopal Church, [WEB].

[5] “Birmingham Campaign,” Stanford, [WEB].