Below is an extended excerpt from Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch in which the writing of the Letter from Birmingham Jail is discussed.
This excerpt follows descriptions of how criticism of the Birmingham campaign was coming from many sources including some people traditionally sympathetic to the cause. Time Magazine called it a "poorly timed protest.": "To many Birmingham Negroes, King's drive inflamed tensions at a time when the city seemed to be making some progress, however small, in race relations." Many others voiced criticism as well, but what really motivated King to begin writing was a letter published in the Birmingham paper signed by eight local clergymen that asked him to end the protest marches.
(Begin excerpt from Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. (p.737-740))
King read these press reactions as fast as Clarence Jones could smuggle newspapers into his cell. They caused him the utmost dismay, especially since a diverse assortment of friends and enemies were using the same critical phrases almost interchangeably. King could have addressed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to almost any of these—to Mayor Boutwell or Burke Marshall or A.G. Gaston, to the Birmingham News or The New York Times. He gave no thought to secular targets, however, after he saw page 2 of the April 13 Birmingham News. There, beneath two photographs of him and Abernathy on their Good Friday march to jail, appeared a story headlined “White Clergymen Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” After attacking the Birmingham demonstrations as “unwise and untimely,” and commending the news media and the police for “the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled,” the clergymen invoked their religious authority against civil disobedience. “Just as we formerly pointed out that ‘hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,’ ” they wrote, “we also point out that such actions as incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”
The thirteen short paragraphs transfixed King. He was being rebuked on his own chosen ground. And these were liberal clergymen. Most of them had risked their reputations by criticizing Governor Wallace’s “Segregation Forever!” inauguration speech in January. They were among the minority of white preachers who of late had admitted Andrew Young and other Negroes to specially roped off areas of their Sunday congregations. Yet to King, these preachers never had risked themselves for true morality through all the years when Shuttlesworth was being bombed, stabbed, and arrested, and even now could not make themselves state forthrightly what was just. Instead, they stood behind the injunction and the jailers to dismiss his spirit along with his body. King could not let it go. He sat down and began scribbling around the margins of the newspaper. “Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas,” he began.
By the time Clarence Jones visited the jail again that Tuesday, King had pushed a wandering skein of ink into every vacant corner. He surprised Jones by pulling the newspaper surreptitiously out of his shirt. “I’m writing this letter,” he said. “I want you to try to get it out, if you can.” To Jones, the “letter” was an indistinct jumble of biblical phrases wrapped around pest control ads and garden club news. He regarded the surprise as a distraction from the stack of urgent business he had brought with him—legal questions about King’s upcoming criminal trials, plus money problems, Belafonte and Kennedy reports, and a host of movement grievances assembled by Walker. Waving these away, King spend most of the visit showing a nonplussed Jones how to follow the arrows and loops from dead ends to new starts. “I’m not finished yet,” King said. He borrowed a number of sheets of note paper from Jones, who left with a concealed newspaper and precious few answers for those awaiting King’s dispositions at the Gaston Motel.
King wrote several scattered passages in response to the criticism that his demonstrations were “untimely.” He told the white clergymen that “time is neutral,” that waiting never produced inevitable progress, and that “we must use time creatively, and forever realized that the time is always ripe to do right.” He feared that “the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will,” and pointed out that Negroes already had waited more than three hundred years for justice. “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ ” Then, in a sentence of more than three hundred words, he tried to convey to the white preachers a feeling of time built upon a different alignment of emotions:
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.
King assumed a multitude of perspectives, often changing voice from one phrase to the next. He expressed empathy with the lives of millions over eons, and with the life of a particular child at a single moment. He tried to look not only at white preachers through the eyes of Negroes, but also at Negroes through the eyes of white preachers (“The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations . . . So let him march sometime, let him have his prayer pilgrimages:). To the white preachers, he presented himself variously as a “haunted,” suffering Negro (“What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”), a pontificator (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”), a supplicant (“I Hope, sirs, you can understand . . .”), and a fellow bigshot (“If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else”). He spoke also as a teacher: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? . . . To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. . . . All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality . . . Let me give another explanation . . . And he spoke as a gracious fellow student, seeking common ground: “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation . . . I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue.”
By degrees, King established a kind of universal voice, beyond time, beyond race. As both humble prisoner and mighty prophet, as father, harried traveler, and cornered leader, he projected a character of nearly unassailable breadth. when he reached the heart of his case, he adopted an authentic tone of intimacy toward the very targets of his wrath—toward men who had condemned him without mentioning his name. Almost whispering on the page, he presented his most scathing accusations as a confession:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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 Council-er 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.
Back at the Gaston Motel, deciphering what he called King’s “chicken-scratch handwriting,” Wyatt Walker became visibly excited by these passages. “His cup has really run over with those white preachers!” Walker exclaimed. Long frustrated by what seemed to him King’s excessive forbearance, Walker thrilled to see such stinging wrath let loose. He knew that the history of the early Christian church made jail the appropriate setting for spiritual judgments—that buried within most religious Americans was an inchoate belief in persecuted spirituality as the natural price of their faith. Here was the early church reincarnate, with King rebuking the empire for its hatred, for its fearful defense of worldly attachments. For this, Walker put aside his clipboard. Long into the night, he dictated King’s words to his secretary for typing.