Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) 96 words

In April 1963 Dr. King was arrested for leading a non-violent protest in Birmingham, Alabama. In a local newspaper a group of white clergymen criticized King. They acknowledged that injustices had been committed when local authorities used fire hoses, batons and police dogs on the demonstrators, but asserted that protest should only be done through the courts. From his jail cell King responded. His letter justifies the use of non-violent protest to fight unjust laws.
  1. confined
    being in captivity
    In this case Dr. King was writing from a jail cell having been arrested for conducting what local authorities considered an illegal protest.
    While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."
  2. affiliated
    being joined in close association
    We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
  3. apostle
    an ardent early supporter of a cause or reform
    Dr. King, an ordained minister, was referring to the Apostle Paul who was one of Jesus' disciples.
    Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
  4. gospel
    an unquestionable truth
    Used as a proper noun, Christians generally refer to "The Gospel" as the story of Jesus.
    Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
  5. cognizant
    (sometimes followed by `of') having or showing knowledge or understanding or realization or perception
    "Aware of" is often used as a synonym for "cognizant of"
    Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.
  6. deplore
    express strong disapproval of
    You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.
  7. superficial
    concerned with or comprehending only what is apparent or obvious; not deep or penetrating emotionally or intellectually
    I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.
  8. grapple
    come to terms with
    I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.
  9. gainsay
    take exception to
    There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.
  10. segregate
    separate by race or religion; practice a policy of racial segregation
    Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.
  11. humiliate
    cause to feel shame; hurt the pride of
    Under the South's system of Jim Crow Laws most public businesses were segregated. This meant that stores, restaurants or other businesses posted signs that might read, "Whites Only" or "Negroes Must Use Back Door." Synonyms include "embarrass" and "degrade"
    In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs.
  12. moratorium
    suspension of an ongoing activity
    On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations.
  13. retaliate
    make a counterattack and return like for like, especially evil for evil
    We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?"
  14. commissioner
    a government administrator
    Birmingham's Commissioner for Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor was in charge of the fire and police departments. He ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs against non-violent protestors including women and children.
    When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues.
  15. earnestly
    in a serious manner
    I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
  16. bondage
    the state of being under the control of a force or influence or abstract power
    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, we 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.
  17. unfettered
    not bound by shackles and chains
    free and unrestrained are synonyms
    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, we 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.
  18. racism
    discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race
    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, we must 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.
  19. monologue
    speech you make to yourself
    Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
  20. dialogue
    a discussion intended to produce an agreement
    Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
  21. status quo
    the existing state of affairs
    While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.
  22. devotee
    an ardent follower and admirer
    But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights.
  23. privilege
    a special advantage or immunity or benefit not enjoyed by all
    Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
  24. moral
    concerned with principles of right and wrong or conforming to standards of behavior and character based on those principles
    Reinhold Niebuhr was a 20th Century American philosopher who preached about the need for realism in human thought. He once wrote, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
    Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
  25. immoral
    not adhering to ethical or moral principles
    Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
  26. segregation
    a social system that provides separate facilities for minority groups
    Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
  27. affluent
    having an abundant supply of money or possessions of value
    synonyms include "prosperous" and 'wealthy"
    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty 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 c
  28. ominous
    threatening or foreshadowing evil or tragic developments
    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty 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 c
  29. concoct
    devise or invent
    Concoct often denotes something "made up" as an excuse.
    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty 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 c
  30. harried
    troubled persistently especially with petty annoyances
    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty 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 c
  31. degenerate
    grow worse
    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty 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 c
  32. abyss
    a bottomless gulf or pit; any unfathomable (or apparently unfathomable) cavity or chasm or void extending below (often used figuratively)
    There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.
  33. diligently
    with diligence; in a diligent manner
    Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.
  34. paradoxical
    seemingly contradictory but nonetheless possibly true
    Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.
  35. harmony
    compatibility in opinion and action
    An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
  36. statute
    an act passed by a legislative body
    Commonly a "statute" is a law passed by a state legislature.
    All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
  37. relegate
    assign to a lower position; reduce in rank
    Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.
  38. existential
    relating to or dealing with existence (especially with human existence)
    Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
  39. ordinance
    a statute enacted by a city government
    Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
  40. minority
    a group of people who differ racially or politically from a larger group of which it is a part
    An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.
  41. devious
    characterized by insincerity or deceit; evasive
    Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered.
  42. register
    enroll to vote
    Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered.
  43. permit
    a legal document giving official permission to do something
    For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.
  44. assembly
    the social act of assembling
    Synonyms include meeting or gathering in public.
    But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
  45. rabid
    marked by excessive enthusiasm for and intense devotion to a cause or idea
    Rabid also refers to the disease rabies, thus when Dr. King writes about "rabid segregationists" he is symbolically comparing segregation to a disease that makes one go "mad" or crazy.
    In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist.
  46. anarchy
    a state of lawlessness and disorder (usually resulting from a failure of government)
    That would lead to anarchy.
  47. excruciating
    extremely painful
    It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
  48. obnoxious
    causing disapproval or protest
    Synonyms include offensive, loathsome, repugnant and hateful.
    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
  49. substantive
    having a firm basis in reality and being therefore important, meaningful, or considerable
    I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
  50. quest
    the act of searching for something
    We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence.
  51. appalling
    causing consternation
    Synonyms include dreadful, frightful and shocking.
    We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
  52. inevitability
    the quality of being unavoidable
    Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this 'hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
  53. stagnation
    inactivity of liquids; being stagnant; standing still; without current or circulation
    Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this 'hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
  54. elegy
    a mournful poem; a lament for the dead
    Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.
  55. repudiate
    reject as untrue, unfounded, or unjust
    Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."
  56. incorrigible
    impervious to correction by punishment
    Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil."
  57. emulate
    strive to equal or match, especially by imitating
    I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.
  58. complacent
    contented to a fault with oneself or one's actions
    In this context "complacent" means unconcerned.
    I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do-nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.
  59. integral
    existing as an essential constituent or characteristic
    An "integral part" is an "essential part."
    I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.
  60. ideology
    an orientation that characterizes the thinking of a group or nation
    And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble-rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
  61. manifest
    clearly revealed to the mind or the senses or judgment
    If something is manifest it is obvious or clear.
    The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.
  62. latent
    potentially existing but not presently evident or realized
    In psychology latent refers to something that is in the unconscious.
    The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them.
  63. pilgrimage
    a journey to a sacred place
    So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides--and try to understand why he must do so.
  64. repressed
    characterized by or showing the suppression of impulses or emotions
    If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.
  65. persecute
    cause to suffer
    Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
  66. righteousness
    adhering to moral principles
    Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
  67. revolution
    a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving
    I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.
  68. eloquent
    expressing yourself readily, clearly, effectively
    Some---such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle---have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.
  69. prophetic
    foretelling events as if by supernatural intervention
    Some---such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle---have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.
  70. languish
    lose vigor, health, or flesh, as through grief
    They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger lovers."
  71. antidote
    a remedy that stops or controls the effects of a poison
    Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
  72. integrate
    open (a place) to members of all races and ethnic groups
    I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.
  73. reiterate
    to say, state, or perform again
    Synonyms include restate and repeat.
    But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church.
  74. spiritual
    concerned with or affecting the spirit or soul
    I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall lengthen.
  75. catapult
    shoot forth or launch, as if from a catapult
    When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies.
  76. admonish
    take to task
    I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother."
  77. sanctimonious
    excessively or hypocritically pious
    In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious. irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.
  78. breadth
    the extent of something from side to side
    Dr. King is using breadth as a synonym for width.
    I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states.
  79. clarion
    loud and clear
    George Wallace was the segregationist governor of Alabama.
    Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred?
  80. defiance
    intentionally contemptuous behavior or attitude
    Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred?
  81. nonconformist
    someone who refuses to conform to established standards of conduct
    How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
  82. conviction
    an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence
    Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man.
  83. intimidated
    made timid or fearful as by threats
    They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated."
  84. contemporary
    occurring in the same period of time
    So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.
  85. ineffectual
    lacking in power or forcefulness
    So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.
  86. sanction
    official permission or approval
    Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
  87. authenticity
    undisputed credibility
    If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it vi lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
  88. inextricably
    in an inextricable manner
    Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
  89. congregation
    a group of people who adhere to a common faith and habitually attend a given church
    But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us.
  90. tortuous
    marked by repeated turns and bends
    They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom.
  91. scorn
    reject with contempt
    Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny.
  92. vitality
    a healthy capacity for vigorous activity
    For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.
  93. sublime
    inspiring awe
    I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.
  94. provocation
    unfriendly behavior that causes anger or resentment
    I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.
  95. formulation
    inventing or contriving an idea or explanation and formulating it mentally
    One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
  96. scintillating
    marked by high spirits or excitement
    Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.