The Backstory to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Backstory to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

February 6, 2020 | Gregg Caruso

Editor’s note: February is Black History Month (check out some resources here). Slavery, the lost lives of the Civil War, the Jim Crow Laws, and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement that included the assassination of Dr. King, were miserable and shameful moments in our American history. As such, we want to remember and appreciate those who have valiantly taken a stand against racism. The following is a guest post by Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition. You can find Dr. King’s famous letter in its entirety here.

 On April 12, 1963—Good Friday—a 428-word open letter appeared in the Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper calling for unity and protesting the recent Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham…

We the undersigned clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an appeal for law and order and common sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

Since that time there had been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems that cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given an indication that we all have the opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as inciting to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.

We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, in the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.

We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

There were eight signees: Two Episcopalians and two Methodists, along with a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. Three of them were in their forties; three in their fifties; one in his sixties; and one who was seventy. All were white.

Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Episcopalian Bishop of Alabama
Bishop Joseph A. Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Roman Catholic Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham
Rabbi Milton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
Bishop Paul Hardin, Methodist Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference
Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
Rev. George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D, Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
Rev. Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
Rev. Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

These eight clergy members who signed the letter were not segregationists but moderates who preferred for the issue to be handled at the local level, rather than by outsiders (like Martin Luther King Jr.).

They urged the use of negotiations and the legal system rather than public protests. They call for peace, not violence. They advocated the rule of law and common sense. And they questioned both the wisdom and the timing of these actions. (For example, King and the other protesters had marched the day after Bull Connor lost a run-off election for mayor, and many wondered why they seemed to be inciting a conflict rather than waiting to see the policies of the new administration.)

King had been arrested the same day the letter appeared (April 12, 1963), after violating Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins’s injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were among the marchers also arrested.

When King read the letter from a small prison cell at the Birmingham Jail, he began composing notes of a response in the margins of the newspaper. His reply was eventually composed and stitched together to form what is now known as the 6,921-word “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963.

As explored by S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letters from Birmingham Jail” (LSU Press, 2001), some of these clergy labored for racial justice and were stung by King’s public criticism, never able to live it down as they were immortalized as literally a “textbook example” of those on the wrong side of history. (It should be noted that Billy Graham shared their views at the time.)


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