Written by civil rights activist and clergyman Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of the historical Birmingham campaign against segregation laws, the Letter from Birmingham Jail outlines the fundamental principles of non-violence campaign. The letter addresses eight white clergymen from Birmingham who had written newspaper opinions criticizing the direct approach by civil rights activists led by King to challenge segregation laws. The clergymen viewed civil disobedience tactics employed by King and other African American civil activists as unwise, hasty, and mistimed. In the letter, he also addresses the “outsider agitator” accusation leveled against him by the clergymen by noting that his presence in Birmingham was upon the invitation of the local churches affiliated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he was serving as the president. Other organizational ties, he argues that it was his spiritual obligation to fight injustice in Birmingham. Moreover, he opines that communities were interrelated and therefore injustice in Birmingham posed a justice threat to his hometown of Alabama and any part of the country.
Martin Luther King Jr. believes that non-violent direct action is necessary because the white power in Birmingham had pushed the African Americans to the wall by denying them their civil rights and offering no room for negotiations. Therefore, his campaign was aimed at creating a crisis-packed and tense situation whose resolution requires good-faith negotiation. Using historical and Biblical stories, King argues that the civil rights activists are not breaking the law. Their actions are simply aimed at challenging the unjust segregation laws which are immoral and go against the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.
King responds to accusations of extremism by giving examples of extremists from both the Bible and historical books that influenced the masses through positive extremism. Therefore, he argues that theirs is an extremism for love and justice and not hate and preservation of injustice through the status quo. Despite the immense support the movement had received from different quarters, King was disappointed in the white moderates for their paternalistic view on when African Americans should gain and enjoy freedom. He is also disappointed in some white churches and their leadership for staying silent.