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.  

 

How Religion Shaped American History

Religion in America has been used to justify unforgivable actions against others. The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one example. In the nineteenth-century, Americans believed that it was their manifest destiny, or God-given duty, to spread their society across the continent. Americans’ godly mission, however, did not require them to care about the Native Americans who were displaced from their lands as whites moved closer. When President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act with the approval of Congress in 1830, Native Americans were forced to move to land west of the Mississippi. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians journeyed west. Baptist missionary Evan Jones traveled with the Cherokee and described the experience: “The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners…In Georgia, especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of the captors.” Although the U.S. believed that manifest destiny justified the seizing of land, this action led to the unjust treatment of Native Americans.

Despite the negative consequences of manifest destiny, religion in American has also served as a motivation for reform. Throughout our nation’s history, churches promoted various social reforms. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, African Americans found leaders for the civil rights movement in their congregations. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott during which African Americans refused to ride buses after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. He also organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest the treatment of blacks in white society. Today African American church leaders continue to fight for social justice. Reverend Jesse Jackson consistently brings media attention to issues of civil rights and other causes like welfare reform. Both King and Jackson demonstrate that religion can be a positive force when it is used to uproot injustices in society.