16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas...But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham...basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly...
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham...You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood...
...My friends, I must say to you that we 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. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
...There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern...One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
...One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire...
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal"...
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"...Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
...I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
...I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?..."
...There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
...Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Welcome to the blog of Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University (brief vita).Richard is the author of Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith. Experimental Theology is also available on the Kindle.
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The Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The William Stringfellow Project (Ongoing)
- Subversion and Shame: I Like the Color Pink
- The Bureaucrat
- Uncle Richard, Vampire Hunter
- Freedom Fellowship
- Palm Sunday with the Orhtodox
- Looking Like Jesus (or a Crazy Person)
- Freedom Rider
- On Maps and Marital Spats
- Get on a Bike...and Go Slow
- Buying a Bible
- Memento Mori
- We Weren't as Good as the Muppets
- Uncle Richard and the Shark
- Growing Up Catholic
- Ghostbusting (Part 1)
- Ghostbusting (Part 2)
- My Eschatological Dog
- Meditations on Y'all
- Tex Mex and Depression Era Cuisine
- Aliens at Roswell
- Driving to Pizza House
On the Principalities and Powers
- Christian Anarchism
- A Restless Patriotism
- Wink on Exorcism
- Images of God Against Empire
- A Boredom Revolution
- The Medal of St. Benedict
- Exorcisms are about Economics
- "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?"
- "A Home for Demons...and the Merchants Weep"
- Tales of the Demonic
- The Ethic of Death: The Policies and Procedures Manual
- "All That Are Here Are Humans"
- Ears of Stone
- The War Prayer
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail
From the Prison Bible Study
Series/Essays Based on my Research
- Death and Christian Art, Part 1
- Death and Christian Art, Interlude
- Death and Christian Art, Part 2
- Death and Christian Art, Part 3
- Satan and the Emotional Burden of Monotheism
- Death, Gnosticism and the Incarnation
- Summer and Winter Christians
- Sinning in Your Heart
- Quest Religious Orientation
- Satan as a Functional Theodicy
- Attachment to God
- PostSecret, Part 1
- PostSecret, Part 2
- PostSecret, Part 3
- PostSecret, Part 4
- PostSecret, Part 5
The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes
The Theology of Peanuts
The Angel of the iPhone
Reflections on Gender and the Church
- Call No Man on Earth Father
- Head Coverings: Why Female Hair is a Testicle
- A Letter to My Church on Women's Roles
- Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?
- Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible
- On Masculine Christianity and Powerplays
- Thoughts on Mark Driscoll While I'm Knitting
- Ambivalent Sexism
- Direct Your Hearts to Her
- Gender, Submission and Ecosystems of Abuse
The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia
How Facebook Killed the Church
Blogging about the Bible
- Adam's First Wife
- I Am a Worm
- Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer
- Let Them Both Grow Together
- Here I Am
- Becoming the Jubilee
- Sermon on the Mount: Study Guide
- Treat Them as a Pagan or Tax Collector
- Going Outside the Camp
- Welcoming Children
- The Song of Lamech and the Song of the Lamb
- The Nephilim
- Shaming Jesus
- Pseudepigrapha and the Christian Witness
- The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs
- The Second Moses
- The New Manna
- Salvation in the First Sermons of the Church
- "A Bloody Husband"
- Song of the Vineyard
- The Jubilee
Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prision
Civil Rights Family Trip
Demons and The Powers
- Part 1: Thinking about Demons
- Part 2: Evil and Illness in Modernity
- Part 3: Evil as Residual
- Part 4: The Language of The Powers
- Part 5: The Angels of the Nations
- Part 6: Yoder on The Powers
- Part 7: The Spirituality of The Powers
- Part 8: The Inner Aspect of Material Power
- Part 9: Stringfellow on The Powers
- Part 10: Demons in the Gosples
The Midrash of R. Crumb
Theology and Evolutionary Psychology
- Prelude: Galileo's Dilemma
- Part 1: Natural and Sexual Selection
- Part 2: On the Sweet Tooth (and Morality as Dieting)
- Interlude: Emoticons
- Part 3: Evolution and Human Sexuality
- Part 4: Sexual Jealousy
- Part 5: Kin Selection and Family Values
- Part 6: The Storge to Xenia Shift
- Part 7: Reciprocity
- Part 8: Moralistic Aggression
Scripture and Discernment
- Biblical as Sociological Stress Test
- Cookie Cutting the Bible: A Case Study
- Pawn to King 4
- Allowing God to Rage
- Poetry of a Murderer
- On Christian Communion: Killing vs. Sexuality
- Heretics and Disagreement
- Atonement: A Primer
- "The Bible says..."
- The "Yes, but..." Church
- Human Experience and the Bible
- Discernment, Part 1
- Discernment, Part 2
- Rabbinic Hedges
- Fuzzy Logic
Interacting with Good Books
- Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?
- Christ and Horrors
- The King Jesus Gospel
- The Bible Made Impossible
- The Deliverance of God
- To Change the World
- Sexuality and the Christian Body
- I Told Me So
- The Teaching of the Twelve
- Evolving in Monkey Town
- Saved from Sacrifice: A Series
- Darwin's Sacred Cause
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 1
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 2
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 3
- The Black Swan, Part 1
- The Black Swan, Part 2
- Rapture Ready!
- A Secular Age
- The God Who Risks
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 1
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 2
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 3
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 4
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 5
- The Evolution of Cooperation
- On Apology
- Ethnocentrism and Politics
- Flies, Attention and Morality
- The Banality of Evil
- Regarding Sex
- The Ovens at Buchenwald
- Violence and Traffic Lights
- Defending Individualism
- Guilt and Atonement
- The Varieties of Love and Hate
- The Wicked
- Moral Foundations
- Primum non nocere
- The Moral Emotions
- The Moral Circle, Part 1
- The Moral Circle, Part 2
- Taboo Psychology
- The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Conviction
- Holiness and Moral Grammars
Experiments in Quantitative Ecclesiology
The Theology of Everyday Life
- Hating Pixels
- Dress, Divinity and Dumbfounding
- The Kingdom of God Will Not Be Tweeted
- The Ethics of :-)
- On Snobbery
- The F-word
- Can you sin on a deserted island?
- Ironic Christians
- Everything I learned about life I learned coaching tee-ball
- Gossip, Part 1: The Food of the Brain
- Gossip, Part 2: Evolutionary Stable Strategies
- Gossip, Part 3: The Pay it Forward World
- Sinning in Your Heart?, Part 1: The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Progress, Part 1
- Moral Progress, Part 2
- Human Nature
- On Humility
Dogmatism & Doubt: Curing the Religious Disease
Sticky Theology (Why is Bad Theology so Popular?)
- Holiness in Heaven?
- Universalism and the New Perspective on Paul
- A Googolplexian Hell
- The Best Ending to the Christian Story: An Exchange with Daniel Kirk
- Universalism and the Bondage of the Will
- Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination
- Universalism and Theodicy
- Universalism FAQ & Answers
- Universalism: A Summary Defense
- Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)
Alone, Suburban & Sorted
The Theology of Monsters
Original Sin: A New View
The Theology of Ugly
A Walk with William James
- Part 1: The Jamesian Situation
- Part 2: Habit
- Part 3: Belief as Vote
- Part 4: Pragmatism and the Emerging Church
- Part 5: Theology is a Fork
- Part 6: Ontological Emotion
- Part 7: Religious Surrender
- Part 8: Introverts at Church
- Part 9: Bubbles in the Sun
- Part 10: Ghostbusting
- Part 11: The Empirical Trace
- Part 12: Saintliness
Preparing for the Cartesian Storm (Free Will & Souls in the Age of Neuroscience)
Musings On Faith, Belief, and Doubt
- Cheap Praise and Costly Praise
- Wired to Suffer
- A New Apologetics
- Orthodox Alexithymia
- High and Low: The Psalms and Suffering
- The Buddhist Phase
- Skilled Christianity
- The Two Families of God
- The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity
- Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith
- Theodicy and No Country for Old Men
- Doubt: A Diagnosis
- Faith and Modernity
- Faith after "The Cognitive Turn"
- The Gifts of Doubt
- A Beautiful Life
- Is Santa Claus Real?
- The Feeling of Knowing
- Practicing Christianity
- In Praise of Doubt
- Skepticism and Conviction
- Pragmatic Belief
- N-Order Complaint and Need for Cognition
The Theology of Humor
Game Theory and the Kingdom of God
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 1
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 2
- It's Still Christmas
- Easter Shouldn't Be Good News
- The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Meditation
- Palm Sunday with the Orthodox
- Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation
- The Liturgical Year for Dummies
- "Watching Their Flocks at Night": An Advent Meditation
- Pentecost and Babel
- Ambivalence about Lent
- On Easter and Astronomy
- Christmas & TV, Part 1: The Grinch
- Christmas & TV, Part 2: Misfits
- Christmas & TV, Part 3: Charlie Brown
- Sex Sandals and Advent
- Freud and Valentine's Day
- Existentialism and Halloween
- Halloween Redux: Talking with the Dead
- Jesus Would Be a Hufflepuff
- The Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow
- Weddings Real, Imagined and Yet to Come
- Michelangelo and Neuroanatomy
- Believing in Bigfoot
- The Kingdom of God as Improv and Flash Mob
- 2012 and the End of the World
- Chocolate Jesus
- The Polar Express and the Uncanny Valley
- Why the Anti-Christ Is an Idiot
- On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies