Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

This was an open letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1963, addressed to eight clergymen who had opposed his protests of segregation and his seemingly inflexible views on civil rights. King defended his “First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest” and explained his motivations for his actions.

He wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He explained his struggle for natural rights, including those protected by the Constitution, “[W]e have not made a single gain [in] civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights.”

Finally, he urged nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of securing justice. “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

King’s letter was published in newspapers across the country and helped to gain broader support for the civil rights movement.