On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was sentenced to a nine-day jail term for his part in desegregation demonstrations. While in jail King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. These ministers were sympathetic to Kings goals - but they said that King's unlawful methods at attaining them were wrong. They believed that King could achieve his goals without breaking the law, and they asked him to call off the demonstrations. King disagreed. It was during this time that King wrote his essay "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which described his concerns for the laws of America and his hope for justice for African Americans.

In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail, King talks about the tension between black and white. He expresses his disappointment at the white moderates who "prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice." He talks about his hope that "the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."

One of King's most important and most extended argument begins with his making a distinction between just and unjust laws. "One may well ask," wrote King, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer "is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: just laws… and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King said, but "conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law, King suggests, "squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law… is out of harmony with the moral law." King also quoted Augustine: "An unjust law is no law at all." He then quoted Thomas Aquinas: "An unjust law is a human law that it not rooted in eternal and natural law."

King wrote in one heartrending passage, is to "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 little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky [mind]." It is to be "humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading 'white' and 'colored.'" It is "when your first name becomes 'nigger' and your middle name becomes 'boy.' …There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over."

Only in form was King's letter addressed to the eight clergymen. In reality he was appealing to the tens of millions of white American he knew would rally to the cause of civil rights - once they understood what was at stake.
"I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham," King wrote. "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."

In his ever-finding quest for desegregation, King adds, "When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage thus carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers."