10 Powerful Passages From MLK’s ‘Letter’

“Letter From Birmingham Jail” was released on April 16, 1963. More than 50 years later, it still resonates.

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    Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested in Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963 (Library of Congress)

    Martin Luther King Jr. made a conscious decision to get arrested in Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963. After lawmakers issued an injunction against protests in an attempt to quell King’s campaign against segregation, King and his fellow civil rights activists continued to challenge the status quo, knowing that they would end up in jail.

    Placed in solitary confinement away from his colleagues and followers, King would end up penning a nearly 7,000-word open letter to white clergy who had joined together to criticize his campaign. The missive, now known as “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” was released to the public on April 16, 1963. A half a century later, the powerfully written letter serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come as a nation and how much further we still need to go — both at home and abroad. Here are 10 of the most moving passages.  

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    King at a March 1967 anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York (AFP/Getty Images)

    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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    Demonstrators on the third leg of the King-led Selma to Montgomery march in March of 1965 (AFP/Getty Images)

    “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.”

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    At the March on Washington in 1963 (National Archives)

    “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

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    King in Oslo, Norway, holding his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 (AFP/Getty Images)

    “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.”

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    John Lewis, Whitney Young, Philip Randolph, King, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins meeting in March of 1963 (AFP/Getty Images)

    “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.”

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    At the March on Washington (AFP/Getty Images)

    “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

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    King and other March on Washington organizers in front of the Lincoln Memorial (AFP/Getty Images)

    “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

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    King in 1966

    “Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T.S. Eliot has said: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’ “

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    A portrait of King from the Harmon Foundation (National Archives)

    “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?”

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    King at a June 1964 press conference (Library of Congress)

    “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.”

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