Letter from Birmingham Jail: A reflection of the broader cultural context

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Scott Lupo at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on American Church History.


The voice of the African American community was muted for many years. Segregation suppressed the voice as it oppressed the community and stripped them of freedom. But when the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. rolled around, and when African Americans gained a new sense of dignity, they decided to stand up, or, in many cases, sit down, for their right to freedom.

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail reflected the African American desire for freedom in the middle of the twentieth century. We will look at the African American Revolution—the events that led up to the arrests in Birmingham starting in the middle of the 1950s—and we will examine King’s letter, so that we might see how his letter reflected the broader cultural context and responded to inner struggles from within the church. To the African American Revolution we now turn.

The African American Revolution emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Weary of waiting for the strategies of associations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans took heart and with great courage protested for their freedom. They marched, picketed, went to jail, and suffered harm, pain and inhumane acts for their cause. Direct action, not indirect research, arguments, or politics, was their tool.1 But what precisely was it that they were fighting?

Jim Crow was a set of customs that marked African Americans off from whites. It would not only segregate African Americans, but it would also require them to live in a demeaning way. Not only would they be required to ride in separate railroad cars when taking the train, they would also have to move aside on sidewalks as whites passed them by. Failure to adhere to these customs resulted in insults, beatings or lynchings.2

Jim Crow caused unsuitable living conditions for African Americans. Colin Powell talked about not being permitted to use the bathroom at a gas station in Woodbridge, Virginia, on a trip from Massachusetts to North Carolina back in 1962 for a military training exercise. He said that he had to pull off to the side of the road so he and his wife could relieve themselves in the woods.3 Not only did Jim Crow create poor living conditions, but it also created a horrible public life for African Americans, too.

Laws were extensive and extreme when it came to segregation. There were laws for nearly every aspect of public life, strictly separating African Americans from whites “on streetcars, buses, and railroads; in schools; in waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, boardinghouses, theaters, cemeteries, parks, courtrooms, public toilets, drinking fountains, and every other public space.”4 Some states went to extreme lengths to enforce segregation: “Oklahoma required separate telephone booths for the two races; Florida and North Carolina made it illegal to give white pupils textbooks that had previously been used by black students.”5 Jim Crow made life miserable economically as well.

African Americans were significantly poorer than whites. One of the main reasons for their poverty was because they were only offered the most menial positions, positions that whites would not take. African Americans were treated as second-class citizens who were only suitable for fieldwork, cooking, laundry, collecting garbage, and other similar tasks.6 Life was certainly hard for African Americans, especially so when the United States Supreme Court seemed to agree with segregation.

Before the twentieth century, the court system was unfavorable for African Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883 and sanctioned laws of segregation.7 Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that the states were required to provide for African Americans equal accommodations as that of the whites. This idea is simply stated, “Separate but equal.”8 Segregation was the reality for African Americans. But what did this reality mean for them?

With segregation as the reality, African Americans were practically considered second-class citizens. Although states were required to accommodate them, what was actually provided was far inferior than what was given to the whites. African Americans continually found themselves at a disadvantage.9

African Americans were disadvantaged by several factors, some of which we have already mentioned. African Americans suffered economic, public, and health disadvantages. But that is not all. Not only were African Americans struggling with poor public accommodations, they were also suffering from poor legal accommodations as well. Legal protection was nonexistent. In fact, it was corrupt. African Americans were being lynched, and those who were involved in the violent acts were protected by white supremacists who ruled the court system.10 However, the courts did not remain corrupt, and in the middle of the twentieth century, things began to change.

In 1955, the Supreme Court overruled the 1896 ruling regarding the “separate but equal” doctrine, saying that it contradicts the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision was motivated by the NAACP who’s subdivision for legal affairs presented their argument that education was not “separate but equal” for African Americans.11 At about this time, the African American community started to stand up, or, in several cases, sit down, for their freedom. One of the major victories was a boycott that started with the arrest of Rosa Parks.

In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for disturbing the peace. She had refused to move from her seat on a bus when her seat was redesignated “whites only.” The NAACP used this event as an opportunity to fight segregation in the transportation system. They developed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in order to spread word in the African American community about a planned boycott on the bus system. Martin Luther King Jr. was made the president of the MIA. This association was able to sustain the boycott for an entire year.12

What ought to be noted from this boycott was the attitude of the one the event started with—Rosa Parks. Contrary to popular thought, she was not physically tired. She was in her early forties. If she was tired, then she was tired of being mistreated. Rosa Parks was purposefully disobeying the bus driver in order to make a statement. She was tired of giving in to the outrageous laws. She decided to take a stand, or, more precisely, a seat.13 This sort of action was a nonviolent response to oppression. This idea was what the boycott was all about. Nonviolent response was still action, and it was the main tool that Martin Luther King Jr. was to use throughout the Civil Rights Movement. But he was not always a purely a supporter nonviolent direct action.

Prior to January of 1956, Martin Luther King was attracted to nonviolent resistance, but he still had his ties with violence. He kept a gun at home and had armed guards protect his house. He severed his violent ties when his wife and infant daughter became victims of violence on January 30, 1956. A stick of dynamite exploded on his front porch, but no one was hurt. However, when King arrived at home, he came to a situation in which the African Americans in the community were ready to go to battle with the whites. Realizing that they were outnumbered, King decided that the battle would have to be a nonviolent one for pragmatic reasons. Nonviolence would give them the moral high ground for battling in court, and it would help prevent needless loss of lives. He urged the community to love their enemies and “meet hate with love.”14 Nonviolence was much more to King than meeting hatred with love, however. He had deep philosophical reasons for utilizing it as opposed to violent reaction.

King’s goal for nonviolence was for reconciliation, not bitterness or humiliation. He wanted peace, not domination. He felt that violence was a reaction against circumstances that seek to humiliate one’s enemy. But King was not looking to destroy his enemy. He was looking to join with his enemy in community. In his eyes, nonviolence was the means for reaching this goal.15 But in the face of harsh adversity, would nonviolent action work?

The states of the south disregarded the rulings of the Supreme Court and heavily put nonviolent action to the test. In March of 1956, the southern states declared that the Supreme Court’s decision a year earlier was a breach of states’ rights. They justified keeping Jim Crow since it would help prevent rioting and violence.16 In the south, cruelty was there to stay. But there seemed to be some hope. The boycott in Montgomery and the Park’s case seemed to gain some ground.

In November of 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in Park’s case, ordering Alabama to desegregate the transportation system. Montgomery complied, and the MIA called off the strike. Other cities attempted the same tactic, and a few succeeded. Birmingham, however, was met with violent opposition by bombing the home of one of the ministers, Fred Shuttlesworth.17 Focus shifted from Montgomery to Albany, where King was not met with the same success.

In November of 1961, the African American community started a series of demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, in which Martin Luther King was involved. He was arrested along with many other African Americans, but since he had strong political support and connections, he was released under the promise that certain reforms would be made by the city officials. However, the city made no changes, and the demonstration had little effect.18

When the demonstrations in Albany did not help, King turned to Birmingham. In February of 1963, African Americans marched in protest, organized sit-ins, and urged for voter registration rights in Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested, including King.19

King was placed in solitary confinement. He had a narrow cell with a bunk bed, but no mattress. He was not given the opportunity to call his wife or attorney. A couple of days after being booked, two attorneys visited him briefly. The following day, King found out his bail had bee raised by his friend Harry Belafonte. Then the day after, he was finally able to contact his wife, whom had been working to contact the President. President Kennedy had opened up the case to the media so that the whole nation was focused on how King was being treated.20

During his time at the Birmingham jail, King wrote a letter. The letter was a response to eight white religious leaders who had written King a public letter through the newspaper. Just as African Americans were unwilling to tolerate injustice any longer, King also was unwilling to let them have the last word; he responded and defended his position against their statements.21 We will now look at the development and argument of the letter.

King saw himself as a prophet and as a missionary. He thought that he was delivering unwanted messages amidst an oppressive and violent people just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. had done in villages that were not their own. He thought that he was delivering good news and was spreading the gospel just as the Apostle Paul had done.22 Indeed, King was not welcomed by all. He was rejected by many, and he was even stabbed by an old African American woman before his time in Birmingham’s jail.23

King was aware that what happened in one area affected all the other areas. He stated, “Whatever affects one [community] directly, affects all [communities] indirectly.”24 If injustice existed in one community, then it threatened justice in all the other communities.25 For this reason, King felt it necessary to confront injustice in Birmingham by using nonviolent direct action, which had worked in Montgomery.

The religious leaders that wrote to King basically stated that they did not like the nonviolent demonstrations. King responded by critiquing them. They were concerned with the demonstrations, but they were not concerned about the circumstances that birthed the demonstrations.26 As was made plain earlier, injustice in the corrupt court system, failed protection in the communities, broken promises by government officials, and disappointments all around left the African American community in a disadvantage that left no alternative but to resort to nonviolent direct action.27

The nonviolent direct action was directed towards merchants. The African American community was going to force merchants to recognize the need for change by making their pocket books suffer.28 The bus boycott in Montgomery achieved this goal to a certain extent, although the victory was won in the courts instead, but the concept there was the same concept in Birmingham. King stated, “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.”29 It was time for the African American community to receive the attention that they were due. This movement towards negotiation could only be achieved by pressure. Pressure and tension were necessary in order to bring the issue to the forefront.30 It was imperative that the issue be dealt with, because the condition of African Americans could no longer be ignored. They were not willing to wait any longer for the freedom that was due to them. King wrote about the atrocity of segregation, of how mothers and fathers were killed, sisters and brothers were drowned, and African Americans were denied the ability to access essentials for sustaining life.31 He was reflecting on the cruel code of Jim Crow, which we discussed earlier. Under these conditions and codes, King and the rest of the African American community could not wait. They had to take action.

The religious leaders were likely to have asked, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” King told his congregation to obey the laws, but here he was getting arrested for disturbing the peace. If they did ask such a question, they already had their answer. King anticipated this question and dealt with it in the letter.

King saw a difference between just laws and unjust laws. Just laws are humanly constructed codes that align themselves with the moral law of God. Unjust laws are codes that fall out of line with the moral law. Any law that degrades the soul is unjust; segregation is unjust because it degrades the soul. Therefore, in his mind King had the right to urge the congregation to obey just laws and to disobey unjust laws.32

It ought to be mentioned that King used support for his arguments that were relevant for the eight religious leaders. The eight religious leaders were comprised of seven clergymen and a Jewish rabbi. King used Christian support, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Niebuhr, Tillich, and the martyrs of the early church. But King also used Jewish support such as from Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego, as well as from Martin Buber. The letter itself was written to these religious leaders, and he was using support from their own backgrounds for his argument.

King made clear that his major problem was not with these religious leaders only. His problem was also with white moderates who wanted peace and not justice. He saw white moderates as lukewarm, and he blamed them for blocking progress. White moderates were, in a sense, sweeping the issue under the rug while the African American community was exposing the tensions that were already present. White moderates hindered the issue from being exposed.33

King addressed the issue regarding the outcome of nonviolent direct action demonstrations. Often it resulted in violence. The eight religious leaders contended that it was not right to precipitate violence. King disagreed. He associated the situation with that of Jesus, saying that He was not condemned when he came to earth, which led to a violent uproar and ultimately to crucifixion. King is no more condemned than Jesus for taking part in nonviolent direct action that happens to lead, in some cases, to violence.34

King directed his focus back on white moderates. He criticized them for saying that time will eventually bring justice to the African American community. King asserted that time was not on anyone’s side, for time is neutral. He strongly stated that the people would have to repent for hateful worlds and also for silence. Both bad people and good people have harmed the African American community.35

In the letter, King identified how he wanted to come to a solution before extremists could do any real damage. Ironically, and to his surprise and disappointment, he was labeled an extremist. But he eventually warmed up to the label, thinking himself to be an extremist of love, not hate or violence, and of justice, not injustice.36

King recognized that injustice had to be fought with persistent and nonviolent direct action. But he was greatly disappointed by the inaction or laxity of the church. He argued that in effect the demonstrators acted as the True Church, for they were “God-intoxicated” in the same way that earlier Christians had brought an end to ancient evils like infanticide and gladiator games.37

King felt that the police department in Birmingham should not be commended as the eight religious leaders had lauded. King argued that it is immoral to use good to preserve injustice in the same way that it is immoral to use evil to preserve justice. The nonviolence of the police department was to preserve segregation, and for that reason it was immoral. King wondered why the religious leaders had not praised the demonstrators for their courage and willingness to suffer, or their discipline in the face of severe adversity. He was basically accusing the eight religious leaders of having their morals out of alignment and they were directly involved in the preservation of segregation through passivity. Instead of passively supporting segregation, they should have actively opposed segregation as Christians (and Jews). These leaders reflected the failure of the church as a whole. It was lax, and in its silence it supported segregation, which broke the hearts of many, including King.38

King’s letter was a good indicator of the times. People were divided over the issue of segregation. Some African Americans did oppose King, but for the most part, the community joined him in nonviolent action in an effort to be heard. It worked, and King’s letter was one of the first influential voices to be heard. It reflected the desire of the African American community for justice and action amidst injustice and passive reinforcement. It reflected the movement towards freedom down a difficult and painful road. King’s letter not only reflected the broader movement towards the road to freedom and the desires of the African American community, but it was well-argued as he reprimanded the eight religious leaders and the church as a whole for passively reinforcing segregation. Although his letter did not affect change immediately, it did help raise the voice of the African American community, so that the issue came to the forefront and the people were forced to address it. It could not be swept under the rug. Their voice was heard.





Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In African American Religious History: A documentary witness. 2nd ed. Milton Sernett, ed. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream: Writings and speeches that changed the world. James Washington, ed. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1992.


Parks, Rosa. My Story. In Autobiography of a People: Three centuries of African American history told by those who lived it. Herb Boyd, ed. New York: Doubleday, 2000.


Patterson, Lillie. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1989.


Thernstrom, Stephan, and Thernstrom, Abigail. America in Black and White: One nation, indivisible. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.


Winters, Paul, ed. The Civil Rights Movement. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.



1 Sydney Ahlstrom, A History of the American People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972), 1073.

2 Paul Winters, ed., The Civil Rights Movement (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000), 14-15.

3 Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One nation, indivisible (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 25.

4 Thernstrom and Thernstrom, America in Black and White, 31.

5 Ibid., 31.

6 Ibid., 34.

7 Winters, The Civil Rights Movement, 15-16.

8 Ibid., 16.

9 Ibid., 16-17.

10 Ibid., 17.

11 Ibid., 20.

12 Ibid., 22-23.

13 Rosa Parks, My Story, in Autobiography of a People: Three centuries of African American history told by those who lived it, Herb Boyd, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 370.

14 Thernstrom and Thernstrom, American in Black and White, 111.

15 Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and speeches that changed the world, James Washington, ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1992), 30-31.

16 Winters, The Civil Rights Movement, 21.

17 Ibid., 23.

18 Ibid., 28.

19 Ibid., 28-29.

20 Lillie Patterson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1989) 103.

21 Patterson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement, 106.

22 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in African American Religious History: A documentary witness, 2nd ed, Milton Sernett, ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 520.

23 Patterson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Movement, 50-51.

24 King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in African American Religious History, 520.

25 Ibid., 520.

26 Ibid., 521.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 522.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 523.

32 Ibid., 524-25.

33 Ibid., 526.

34 Ibid., 527.

35 Ibid., 528.

36 Ibid., 529.

37 Ibid., 531.

38 Ibid., 533.


2 thoughts on “Letter from Birmingham Jail: A reflection of the broader cultural context

  1. Thanks for putting together Letter from Birmingham Jail: A reflection of the broader cultural context ἸΑΚΩΒΟΥ I am enjoying your posts. Would you consider a guest post? You can see my post style at http://education-bookstore.com and certainly I would be interested in having you post an article or two on my blog, what do you think?

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