Boston University: Writing 98
Instructor: Raleigh C. Finlayson
Martin Luther King: Letter from
a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. He attended Morehouse College, and
after receiving his doctorate in Theology from Boston University in 1955, became pastor of the Dexter
Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. There, he organized a 382-day bus boycott that led to
the 1956 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation on Alabama buses. As leader of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was instrumental in securing the civil rights of black
Americans, using methods based on a philosophy of nonviolent protest. In 1964, he was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize. A few years later, however, in 1968, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the mid-1950s, long-standing state support for segregation of the races and discrimination
against blacks had begun to be challenged from a variety of places. The Supreme Court decisions in
1954 and 1955 declared segregation in public schools and other publically financed places
unconstitutional, while calls for an end to discrimination were being made by blacks and whites alike.
Their actions took the form of marches, boycotts, and sit-ins (organized protests in which participants
refuse to move from a public place).
Many whites, however, particularly in the South, vehemently resisted any change in race
relations. By 1963, when King organized a campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama,
tensions ran deep. He and his followers met fierce opposition from the police as well as well as from
some white people, who considered him an “outside agitator.” During the demonstrations, King was
arrested and jailed for eight days. He wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to white priests and
clergyman while in jail to explain his actions and answer those who urged him to stop his
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. If I
sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything
other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.
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, since you have been influenced by the view