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Martin Luther King Speaks Out Against Injustice

These two letters from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., composed four years apart, provide insight into the evolution of King's struggle against injustice. In the excerpt from "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written following King's arrest at a peaceful protest in Alabama , he expresses his disappointment in the "white moderates" who urged a cautious, wait-and-see approach to ending racial segregation; such "shallow understanding from people of good will," King writes, "is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." In the second excerpt, from a letter published after his assassination in 1968, King has expanded the civil rights movement to not only include "the dispossessed of this nation -- the poor, both white and Negro" but oppressed persons around the world over, who must "shake and transform the earth in the quest for life, freedom and justice."

Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963:

…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dec. 1967, published posthumously in King’s The Trumpet of Conscience, 1968:

The dispossessed of this nation the poor, both white and Negro live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of … their fellow citizens, but against the structures which the society is refusing to take means … to lift the load of poverty…

… Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point. That interruption must not, however be clandestine or surreptitious. It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer…

…The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. The American Negro … may be the vanguard of a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived shake and transform the earth in the quest for life, freedom and justice.

Source | The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper, [1968]; Craig Gordon/Oakland Unified School District, Hidden in Plain Sight: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Radical Vision,
Creator | Martin Luther King Jr.
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Martin Luther King Jr., “Martin Luther King Speaks Out Against Injustice,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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