What Are the Main Points of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail?

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In his famous open letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. defended both his right and his moral grounds for organizing nonviolent protest activities in support of the civil rights of African Americans. He defended breaking laws when those laws are unjust.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested and imprisoned in Birmingham in 1963 regarding his protest activities. Birmingham at the time was segregated, meaning it was legal for businesses to insist that African-Americans use only certain areas or refuse service altogether. King wrote the open letter in response to one written by eight white clergymen criticizing his actions. It was first published in The Atlantic magazine under the title “The Negro is Your Brother.”

In the letter, Dr. King defended the legitimacy of using protests and demonstrations and even breaking the law in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation and racism. His organization had attempted to negotiate with white business owners with little result. He insisted that the tensions created by the demonstrations were necessary to force progressive action.

King also insisted that African-Americans had waited long enough for civil rights that were too slow in coming. He lamented the feelings of white moderates and the white church establishment itself who valued order rather than justice for his people. Dr. King stated his belief that history will see the protesters as the real heroes and signed the letter “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.”