Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for taking part in a civil rights protest. African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama had few rights. They were not allowed to enter certain stores and the police would not investigate the bombings of African-Americans’ homes or churches by angry whites. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a non-violent protest in this city to draw attention to the injustices that blacks experienced.

While in jail, he wrote a letter to white Alabama pastors who thought that legalized separation of blacks and whites, known as segregation, should not be protested. They felt that the courts should decide whether the laws of segregation were just. In his letter, King explains that there are two types of laws: just (fair) laws, and unjust (unfair) laws.

He explains that a just law is one that all citizens have a vote on and must follow. An unjust law is a law that only a minority needs to follow whether they can vote on it or not.  For example, he was arrested for parading without a permit. While he sees nothing wrong with a requirement for parade permits, he points out that this law was being used to squash the right of African-Americans to protest for equal rights.

King does not, however, advocate that African-Americans break laws just for the fun of it or out of bitterness for their poor treatment. Instead, they would have to be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. He writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King was accepting the penalty of an unjust law by calmly sitting in jail for his part in the protest.

History, King points out, is full of unjust laws. For example, Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews was legal for a long time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Hitler’s laws were unjust. In the same way, segregation laws would be viewed as unjust someday. Thanks to King and other civil rights leaders, the injustice of segregation is obvious to Americans today.  


Booker T. Washington and Racial Equality

In the late 1800s, Booker T. Washington was the President of the Tuskegee Institute, a school in Alabama that taught African Americans practical skills like farming. He spoke to whites about African Americans at the Atlanta Exposition. The speech, which emphasized that good relations with whites would help blacks more than starting arguments, made Washington a recognized leader of African Americans.

Washington believed that in the late nineteenth century African Americans needed good relations with whites so they could make a living and get educated. In his opinion, African Americans could achieve good relationships with whites much easier by seeking jobs in factories or as maids than if they demanded a seat in Congress. He stated, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we [African Americans] must begin, and not at the top.” By filling jobs that were useful to whites, African Americans had a better chance of earning a living. According to Washington, if African Americans had nothing to live on they would not be able to enjoy equal rights even if they had those rights were offered to them.

Although he believed in African Americans working simpler jobs at first, Washington wanted them to be accepted into white society eventually. He pointed out the benefits that whites would gain from helping blacks get education and jobs, “we [African Americans] shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third its intelligence and progress.” Washington believed that if whites saw how useful blacks were to the economy of the South, they would be more accepting of equal rights for blacks. He stated, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.” Despite the fact that he encouraged blacks to work jobs that might seem demeaning, he hoped they would gradually gain the right to do whatever they wanted, including serving in Congress.