Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | Quotes


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King responds to the accusation that he's an outsider by asserting an action against one person has an indirect effect on others. If people's rights are impeded in Birmingham, that will ultimately affect King, who lives in Atlanta. Therefore it is his duty and right to call for change anywhere in the world, not just in his hometown.


I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.'

Martin Luther King Jr.

Tension is usually thought of as being a bad thing, but King states there are actually two kinds of tension: violent tension, which is bad, and nonviolent tension, which is "necessary for growth." He supports the use of the latter, which he feels will help people look past the "myths and half-truths" and come up with viable solutions to the problem of racial inequality.


Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King's critics argue this isn't the right time for massive social upheaval. King counters those who do the oppressing will never think there's a right time because they like the way things are. It is up to the people who are hurt the most by repressive policies to take charge of their own situation. King is speaking specifically to black Americans who insist the federal courts and legislative system will right the wrongs of the status quo. He doesn't want them to wait for change—he wants them to demand it.


Justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King is quoting someone else's words when he says this, but it isn't clear who. He refers to the original speaker as "the distinguished jurist of yesterday," which could be any number of judges or attorneys. A Louisiana attorney practicing in the 1840s used the phrase in an article he authored for the Louisiana Law Review. The phrase seems to have its origins in a proverb dating from the 17th century. King uses the phrase to reference the length of time African Americans have been waiting for basic rights. Rights that are promised for the future mean little to people who need them now.


A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King says there are two kinds of laws: those that are just and those that are unjust. Just laws align with the natural laws of God and should be followed. Unjust laws are immoral and therefore needn't be followed.


Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King is annoyed by whites who say they are in favor of civil rights yet object to the means by which activists try to obtain them. He feels this hampers the fight for racial equality more than hate speech by white supremacist groups.


Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King uses an analogy about a robber and the persons robbed to denounce the clergymen's hypocrisy and their use of victim blaming—as they intimidate or shame those seeking their constitutional rights. According to King the complaint about peaceful protests "[precipitating] violence" is akin to blaming a robbery victim because he had money to steal. King alleges the white legislative bodies and their supporters are robbers who have stolen many African Americans' civil rights.


I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King was aware he didn't represent every black voice when it came to the subject of civil rights. On one end of the spectrum were African Americans who didn't want change—people who had been beaten down by the system and felt they deserved to be treated as second-class citizens, as well as the few educated and wealthy blacks who benefited from segregation. On the other side were the problack militants, like those in Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement who were perfectly willing to use violence to gain their end of a separate and equal culture. King's moderate stance put him somewhere in the middle. He wanted equal rights, but he also wanted African Americans to be part of the culture to which they rightfully belonged.


I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King was initially hesitant to be labeled an extremist because of the word's negative connotation, which was often associated with black nationalist groups that sometimes condoned violence. King's acceptance of the label coincides with his redefinition of what it means to be "extreme." He presents extremism as being a desirable quality found in the greatest thinkers and leaders of Western culture, which not only turns the clergy's label into a term of praise but also positions him alongside individuals who successfully changed the way people see the world. He elevates his own position by accepting a label he once found disappointing.


Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King's admission that he "expected too much" from white moderates refers not to his failings but to theirs. He thinks people who have even a marginal grasp of the unjustness of segregation would understand the need for ending it as soon as possible. When white moderates do not understand this need, their lack of comprehension reinforces King's view that few of the "oppressor race" see that injustice "must be rooted out by ... determined action."


The judgment of God is upon the church as never before.

Martin Luther King Jr.

This is about as close to a threat as King gets in his letter to the Alabama clergymen who condemned his actions. King believes the Christian Church's acceptance of segregation is entirely un-Christian as it violates the basic morality inherent in the teachings of Christ. Because of this, he argues, people will lose faith in the Church—making it and the people who run it obsolete.


I can't join you in your praise for the police department.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King's tone of polite dissent veers into sarcasm and near bitterness toward the end of his letter. He has a lot of feelings about the clergymen's praise for Birmingham law enforcement, which has a long history of mistreating blacks. He is appalled the clergymen think this sort of behavior is acceptable, much less something to be lauded.


It is just as wrong ... to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King is again speaking about the Birmingham police force. He acknowledges "[the police] have been rather disciplined in their public handling of the demonstrators" but argues that good behavior on their part doesn't justify the continued enforcement of segregation.


They were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The "American dream" of which King writes is the deep-rooted idea that anyone, no matter their social or financial standing, can create a comfortable and fulfilling life for themselves with hard work and determination. He believes future generations will view the civil rights activists of the 1960s as heroes who fought for equality for all Americans. Decades after the peak of the civil rights movement, his prediction appears in large part to have come true.


I'm afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem with written text is that it's often hard to discern the author's intended tone. This sentence could be interpreted as a sincere apology about the length of King's letter, or it could be read as a not-so-gentle swipe at the eight white clergymen who wrote the document to which King is responding. It is likely the latter, as King goes on to mention the uncomfortable conditions of his incarceration. This one sentence casts the eight clergymen as self-important grandstanders while King is depicted as a rebel willing to suffer for his cause.

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