Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Writer

We writers often slip into believing we must have perfect conditions to write. But the truth is when we truly must commit our words to the page, we will write–despite the conditions. Four days after white clergy published a statement urging civil rights activists to “go slow” and fight their battle in the courts rather than the streets, Martin Luther King, Jr. started writing. In a jail cell. Without even a pad of paper.

In the margins of a newspaper, he wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter of many enduring ideas including “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Here’s how he described the process: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication.”

Let’s honor Martin Luther King, Jr. the writer as well as the social justice activist this week. I encourage you to read the excerpt of his letter below and be inspired to write what you must. Take the time to express your thoughts–no matter what your conditions might be.

Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

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 can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; 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, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

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. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. 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. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

You can read the full text of the letter here.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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7 Responses to Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Writer

  1. Susan says:

    Thanks for posting this and the link to the source.

  2. Thank you for the reminder of his gift as a writer. I am in awe, again, always.

  3. generalkat says:

    I read the whole letter…all 23 pages…that highlighted the reason for the marches and the non-violent protest for racial equality that Martin Luther King felt would break the chains of slavery for the Negro race. His writing is clear and sprinkled with Biblical references that made me understand his campaign to release the restrictions placed on his people. Thank you for giving this author the respect he is due. I can see clearly how his leadership brought reform to the South and to the people who needed to be treated as equals.

  4. Thank you so much for MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail!” What a reminder of all the struggles over inequality. I especially liked the quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What a blessing! MLK’s writing is a good reminder to us writers of the importance of using personal examples and show don’t tell:

    ” . . .when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, . . .”

  5. hbksloss says:

    Very inspirational!

  6. Jennifer says:

    What a beautiful tribute, Theo! Thank you for highlighting our very own nonviolent hero and his incredible writing (and preaching) aptitude. How did he do all he did in only 39 years!?!

  7. Rita Graving says:

    Brilliant. Thanks for sharing!

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