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Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King's powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail, penned in 1963, underpins the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement. Written in response to clergymen urging patience, King advocates for direct, nonviolent action to confront and resolve segregation, sparking the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] What we're going to read together in this video is what has become known as Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote from a jail cell in 1963 after he and several of his associates were arrested in Birmingham, Alabama as they nonviolently protested segregation there. And, I'm going to read an excerpt of it. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It is one of the most powerful documents, frankly, I have ever read. And Martin Luther King often gets a lot of credit as an amazing speaker. People say, "Hey, he could read the phone book, "and it would move people." But this also speaks to what an incredible writer he was. Not only is it moving, but it really gives the philosophical underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And many people attribute the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed by Congress as being heavily influenced by Martin Luther King's letter. Now, what motivated Martin Luther King to write this letter was a statement made in the newspaper by eight Alabama clergymen, which encouraged the protesters to wait saying, "That, yes, we are sympathetic to the injustices, "but they should be resolved in the courts "and not through the type of protests, "the type of tension, that Martin Luther King "and his fellow protesters were creating." And so, here's just an excerpt of what Martin Luther King wrote, "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. "The purpose of our direct action program "is to create a situation so crisis packed "that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. "I guess 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 sister and brothers at whim; "when you have seen hate-filled policemen "curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill "your black brothers and sisters with impunity; "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 six-year-old daughter why she cannot go "to the public amusement park that has "just been advertised on television; "when you take a cross-country drive "and find it necessary to sleep night after night "in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile "because no motel will accept you; "when you are humiliated day in and day out "by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored,' "then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." I've read this many times, but every time I read it, and this is just an excerpt, as you can tell, it's incredibly powerful. And I encourage you to read it in its entirety, and think about why this was such a powerful document, especially for catalyzing things like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.