In spring 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. disregarded a court injunction against his organizing a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, and was jailed. While imprisoned, King read a piece jointly submitted by well-known Christian and Jewish leaders to the Birmingham News, "Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," which decried the mass protests and called King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference "outside agitators." This criticism prompted a response from King, known as Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which has been noted for its power and eloquence and has come to symbolize the struggle for civil rights.
King objected to being termed an outsider, maintaining that no one was an outsider in the human community. He argued that the Birmingham power structure had been unresponsive to blacks and had thus set the stage for demonstrations. King explained the nature of nonviolent protest, stating that an initial determination of whether injustice truly existed was made and that negotiations with community leaders took place to attempt to resolve the issue. After unsuccessfully attempting these steps in Birmingham, King asserted, activists decided that direct action was necessary and learned what action could mean for them, such as possibly spending time in jail. The next stage was a peaceful protest to raise people's consciousness.
Buttressing his arguments with Christian theology, especially that of thirteenth-century saint Thomas Aquinas, King viewed laws as just or unjust in how they corresponded with God's laws. He affirmed his respect for the law but cautioned that history had shown that not all that is legal is just. King called all segregationist statutes unjust because they denied God's view of each individual as unique and precious. King warned the leaders of Christian churches that their communities would become superficial clubs if they did not address social issues and voiced hope that churches would work for social justice. He concluded the letter by apologizing for any exaggerations he might have made and praying for forgiveness if he had not done enough in his efforts to persuade.