APRIL 16, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper and in the margins of newspapers.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he wrote.
Jail trusties passed them to his lawyers, who transformed the handwriting into a 21-page typed letter to eight white clergymen who had chastised him for breaking the law. King reminded them that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
“It is the duty of people to break unjust laws,” he wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In response to criticism that his protest was “unwise and untimely,” King responded, “I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”
He said he wished these ministers had praised the protesters “for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day, the South will recognize its real heroes.”