"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Imprisoned in April, 1963 for protesting segregation, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this letter to affirm that nonviolent civil disobedience was essential to achieving the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Read the full text of the letter here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. untimely
    too soon; in a premature manner
    While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."
  2. deplore
    express strong disapproval of
    You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.
  3. gainsay
    take exception to
    There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.
  4. 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.
  5. nonviolence
    peaceful resistance to a government
    We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?"
  6. unfettered
    not bound by shackles and chains
    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.
  7. gadfly
    a persistently annoying person
    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.
  8. lamentable
    bad; unfortunate
    Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
  9. unduly
    to an unnecessary degree
    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.
  10. segregation
    a social system with 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.
  11. affluent
    having an abundant supply of money or possessions of value
    ...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...
  12. harried
    troubled persistently, especially with petty annoyances
    ...when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next...
  13. 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.
  14. relegate
    assign to a lower position
    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.
  15. existential
    relating to or dealing with the state of being
    Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
  16. estrangement
    the feeling of being alienated from other people
    Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?
  17. sublime
    inspiring awe
    It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.
  18. plight
    a situation from which extrication is difficult
    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.
  19. precipitate
    bring about abruptly
    In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.
  20. stagnation
    a state of inactivity
    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.
  21. 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.
  22. extremist
    a person who holds radical views
    At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.
  23. complacency
    the feeling you have when you are satisfied with yourself
    One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
  24. 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."
  25. 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."
  26. complacent
    contented to a fault with oneself or one's actions
    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.
  27. rabble
    a disorderly crowd of people
    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.
  28. manifest
    reveal its presence or make an appearance
    The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.
  29. Zeitgeist
    the spirit of the time
    Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
  30. latent
    not presently active
    The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them.
  31. languish
    lose vigor, health, or flesh, as through grief
    They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen...
  32. admonish
    counsel in terms of someone's behavior
    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."
  33. blatant
    without any attempt at concealment; completely obvious
    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.
  34. pious
    having or showing or expressing reverence for a deity
    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.
  35. 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.
  36. secular
    characteristic of this world rather than the spiritual world
    And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
  37. nullification
    doctrine that a state can refuse to recognize a federal law
    Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
  38. clarion
    loud and clear
    Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
  39. nonconformist
    someone refusing to follow established standards of conduct
    How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
  40. mores
    the conventions embodying the fundamental values of a group
    In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
  41. inextricably
    in a manner incapable of being disentangled or untied
    Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
  42. tortuous
    marked by repeated turns and bends
    They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom.
  43. inhumane
    reflecting a lack of pity or compassion
    I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.
  44. profundity
    intellectual depth; penetrating knowledge
    They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."
  45. scintillating
    having brief brilliant points or flashes of light
    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.

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