How to Respond to Criticism — Learning from Dr. King

(Photo: Africa Within)

Total read time (bolded sections) = 5 minutes

Total read time (all) = 40 minutes

I am embarrassed to tell you that, up until three weeks ago, I had never read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham City Jail. It is, without a doubt, one of the best case studies in how to deal with criticism I’ve ever come across.

Much like the historic Declaration of Independence (4-minute read time) and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (30-second read time), not much happened immediately following publication.

The direct action that it helped catalyze, however, prompted police abuse that became front-page news around the world.

The news created pressure on the US government for a response, and when Dr. King later spoke with President John F. Kennedy, it’s reported that JFK’s message was much the same as the clergymen below: please be patient; time will solve this.

Reverend King’s response was purportedly a simple statement of fact. “I can’t stop this movement. The children plan to march on to the capital.”

JFK’s then sighed and changed his tune: “OK. What do you want, Martin?”

Check mate…

This was not accidental. From Reverend King’s actions that landed him in jail (the Birmingham Campaign), to his measured response to the clergymen, to the provocation of police brutality, his tactics were borrowed largely from Mahatma Gandhi.

Below, please find the original letter to Dr. King and his response, which was originally composed on toilet paper, in newspaper margins, and on other available scraps of paper. He did not have Wikipedia or encyclopedias for citations.

I have included the bolded highlights I made upon my first reading. The highlights include not just his masterful disarming of arguments, but also notable concepts and demonstrations of logic.

Please note: I do not believe in collective guilt. To my mind, it serves no useful purpose. I include this letter, not to make a point about race, but to illustrate how one can address critics and recruit them–or the broader world–to a point of view. The verbal techniques, such as accepting the validity of emotions and arguments before deconstructing them, can be applied to almost all conflicts, whether in the boardroom, bedroom, or political battlefield.

I sincerely hope that, after reading the bolded passages, you will return to read the entire letter later, alternatively called “Why We Can’t Wait.” It is very well worth your time.

The Original Letter to Reverend King

April 12, 1963

A Call for Unity

We clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.

Since that time there has been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.

However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.

We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experiences of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.

Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to 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.

We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.

We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

Signed by:

C.C.J. CARPENTER, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Alabama.

JOSEPH A. DURICK, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham

Rabbi MILTON L. GRAFMAN, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama

Bishop PAUL HARDIN, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church

Bishop NOLAN B. HARMON, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church

GEORGE M. MURRAY, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

EDWARD V. RAMAGE, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States

EARL STALLINGS, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

Dr. King’s Response – Letter from a Birmingham City Jail

April 16, 1963

My dear Fellow Clergymen,

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through an these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants — for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.

Creative Tension

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

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 stiff 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 dark 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.

Breaking the Law

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 won ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat 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.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

The White Moderate

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

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 Counciler 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; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “An Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to 6e solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At fist I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides-and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

Extremists for Love

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. We we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some-such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

The White Church

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who ‘has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Walleye gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

Disturbers of the Peace

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jai with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, ham and all over the nation, because the goal of America k freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Bull Connor’s Place

Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if .you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face Jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My fleets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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135 Replies to “How to Respond to Criticism — Learning from Dr. King”

  1. I dig it. His style was more of a story-teller than a logical debater. Interesting. Maybe it was more logical I initially thought.

    I wonder how many squares he would’ve dedicated to P. Trunk.

  2. Good, thought-provoking post. King handles all criticisms with calm logic and humility, stuff we could do with a lot more of these days.

  3. Tim,

    Thanks for sharing. The point about accepting emotions and arguments before analyzing and responding to them directly is especially important for everyone to understand.

    It’s too bad the modern school system doesn’t put more emphasis on this concept and instead children are left with the media (movies) to discover how to deal with conflict.


  4. Wow, outstanding letter! I had never read it either, and you’re right it’s a great example of explaining one’s arguments clearly and effectively – agreeing with the opponent and using their own words against them.

    This line stood out to me as a good definition: “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”

    Interestingly, I think this could be used to argue against the progressive tax system and most social welfare programs in the U.S. Regardless, thanks for sharing it Tim…found it very interesting.


  5. Hi Tim,

    This is yet another outstanding post from the Four Hour Blog…thanks so much for putting it all together!

    There are many useful points here and lots of practical ideas jump out from the highlighted passages.

    Thank you and much love, Ian Aspin.

  6. hey man

    thanks for the interesting post.

    i would like to let you know that Russia is TimFerrissed, at last, and that was one of the my top news of the last week. cheers!

    how is your elbow?

    stay well, we need ya.

  7. Dr. King’s clarity of thought, empathetic prose, sense of self upheld by moral high ground, courage and indomitable will are virtues that we need to cultivate. It’s tough, very tough to do so. But the journey would be eased should be embrace a cause for the greater common good that fires up our days with action, defeats, lessons and progress.

  8. Holy cow!

    I’ve never been exposed to this content or heard of it for that matter. Even though this really isn’t new content from you, I applaud you for sharing this in it’s entirety,

    This is a key lesson not only in blogging, but in life. At times I let myself become more impacted by 1 critic than by 100 fans. That’s the nature of the beast, but reading content like this helps me realize that it’s all just a small ripple in the ocean of life.

    I love this sort of stuff and while I appreciate your writing, I urge you to continue to share this sort of content from time to time.

    Well done, sir!

    1. ..and that is the most chilling to hear, and hats off that said so simply…You’d never been exposed to this nor even heard of it.

      So what are they teaching and how — or more likely allowed to teach — in schools these days. War and no peace.

      I am of the Old Ways. not the religions of the three brothers as I call them, but I read these in school ( and Martin Buber also at 8 years old for that matter at home, only child syndrome..!) as part of our history course and the major writings that were important on our time. But then we talked of creating peace in history class, not about how to justify blowing people up for whatever reason. Still hard for me to understand how younger generations, who are born to “get it” humanly more effectively than we, have instead accepted so much bs without a blink.

      So thank you for saying outloud what may get some people thinking…That’s always good true work for peace.

  9. Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant – wow. Staying steadfast in your convictions is tough for everyone but reading MLK’s words in this letter is a a truly profound lesson and philosophical treatise on how one can do so. My word, if we could replicate a one hundredth of MLK’s fortitude and forebearance in our own lives what could we achieve?! Thanks Tim this post was the one that finally got me to post.

  10. Wow, what particularly stood out to me was:

    “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

    That truly does hold true right now for various causes. I’m glad that you’ve put this on your website Tim. I wouldn’t have remembered to read it otherwise. I hope it sparks some interest in the gay rights movement, the race relations in South Africa, and so many other issues that deserve their own justice.

  11. I’m always amazed by those that take a chance and risk for a better world. Although the apparent misconfusion, Martin wasn’t thinking of a better world for himself. He was deseigning it, and desireing it, for all of us. Maybe some people, ideias and thoughts can only be fully recognized and appreciated after a delayed time, a glance over our shoulder. Maybe. It’s our job to give them away again, writing about them, bring them to present days so that nem looks can overcome the past ones and enrich them with the silent glory ultimatly deserved. And settled.

  12. Hey Tim,

    Come to think of it- I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read either of those letters. I’m not sure if I had read those letters much earlier in my life that they would have meant as much to me as it did reading them today.

    Thank You- again.


  13. Thanks for the book suggestion Tim. If you have been able to write such a long post, it must be something of very high value.

  14. Tim,

    I didn’t get to read this kind of stuff in my public school. I only had time to hit a few parts of this article so I saved the rest for later, but what I read shook me to the core. I forwarded it on to my family.

    I appreciate Dr. King immensely and I wish I had a fraction of the writing and oration skills he had. Thank you for outlining some of his work for us. I appreciate it.


  15. When I glanced at the subject of this post and St. Augustine’s quote in the letter, I thought about “The Great Debaters” (2007), directed by Denzel Washington. Denzel embraces this subject in so many enlightening ways.

  16. I was fortunate enough to have been required to read this as a college freshman.

    MLK used tactics similar to Ghandi (non-cooperation, passive resistance) to bring an end to Jim Crow. Bus boycotting (or any large scale organized boycotting) is a powerful tool to bring social change because of its economic impact.

    Horace Mann’s 1852 reform of our public schools are modeled after Prussian social efficiency experiments whose main purpose is to invoke obedience:

    Until true edu-reform (fostering critical thinking through inquiry-based learning) pervades our schools on a large scale, we will continue to need heros like MLK and Ghandi to educate and enlighten.

  17. A wise man once wrote:

    “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem, they’ve seen it done and probably know how to do it, but never actually do it themselves”

    I noticed that usually the better a product (idea/service/etc) is, the more polarised the critics tend to be. Sometimes bearing on the irrational. (Constructive criticism NOT included).

    If you look carefully at any popular website with a popular rating system, you’ll see that the good products usually have 50% or more of the bad reviews on 1 star (assuming a 1 – 5 star rating system).

    About 80% of those reviewers that actually bother to articulate their thoughts will either:

    Argue that it did not deliver something, (that was not promise in the first place). (1)

    Be personal, about the makers/fan base/author/themselves. (2)

    Have not fully used the product, if used at all. (3)

    4hww as a good example, many of the bad reviews included (actual words may differ):

    -“Impractical, because if everybody did there would be no one left to do the actual work” (1)

    -“Only helps to make the poor world poorer” (1)

    And, my favorite [true story, I swear]

    -“Although I have not read the book [..] and the author [Tim Ferris] may have slept with better woman than I ever have or will [..] been to countries I can only dream of […] while it may seem personal, it is not […] his book sucks” (2) (3)

  18. A wise man once wrote:

    “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem, they’ve seen it done and probably know how to do it, but never actually do it themselves”

    I noticed that usually the better a product (idea/service/etc) is, the more polarised the critics tend to be. Sometimes bearing on the irrational. (Constructive criticism NOT included).

    If you look carefully at any popular website with a popular rating system, you’ll see that the good products usually have 50% or more of the bad reviews on 1 star (assuming a 1 – 5 star rating system).

    About 80% of those reviewers that actually bother to articulate their thoughts will either:

    Argue that it did not deliver something, (that was not promise in the first place). (1)

    Be personal, about the makers/fan base/author/themselves. (2)

    Have not actually used the product. (3)

    4hww as a good example, many of the bad reviews included

    -“Impractical, because if everybody did there would be no one left to do the actual work” (1)

    -“Only helps to make the poor world poorer” (1)

    And, my favorite [true story, I swear]

    -“Although I have not read the book [..] and the author may have slept with better woman than I ever have or will [..] been to countries I can only dream of […] while it may seem personal, it is not […]his book sucks” (2) (3)

  19. Hi Tim,

    Too often we overlook the past…thanks for the reminder. Also, bolding passages is a great tool…

    Paul Norwine

  20. I gave my blog address because my personal Web Site is still under construction.

    I visited your blog this morning and read your post about the “How to’s of dealing with Criticism”. I read the bolded excerpts but found my interest building about what Dr. King’s full message was. So, I read it and found that it prompted me to write a post with a different but similar thrust.

    Seems that Dr. King’s answer to his fellow clergymen as to why he was making so much noise about, at the time, an inconvenient truth of racial inequality, can apply to almost any kind of accepted but unquestioned belief.

    His brilliant answer to their letter beseeching him to shush up and just let ‘time’ make the changes speaks to the very essence of what I need to challenge in my own set of beliefs about the way I think the world should be versus the way it really is.

    Thanks for such a though provoking post.

  21. I remember reading this back in high school rhetoric class. Reading it again in its entirety makes me stand in awe again in Dr. King’s combination of emotional passion and logical clarity to drive a meaningful purpose.

    It does make me reflect on my own lukewarm state of living…

  22. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

    Wow. The sad thing, this is still going on today, I think we (Americans) are now ignoring the degradation and erosion of our environment and the mass mistreatment of animals (and some people) – but you know, that’s my soapbox.

    Hadn’t read any of his stuff since college, absolutely beautiful words. Thanks.

  23. I’m not American, but reading this still had a profound impact on me. He handled criticism in such an eloquent manner that he not only made his critics seem like the ‘unwise’ ones, but he also proved his point without so much as a hint of negativity.

    His words truly matched his stance on non-violent protest through ‘creative tension’.

  24. An amazing post! The way he ends the letter makes it seem as if he were writing close friends.

    “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

    His response reminds me of Proverbs 25:21-22.

    21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;

    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

    22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,

  25. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for the great article!

    As you’ve mentioned in the beginning of this post, the letter of Dr. King is far more than a simple speech about race or time’s problems but it’s also an incredible example of dealing with conflict.

    We usually forget that in a certain conflict our purpose is to settle it down and to make the “opponent” agree with us. Most disagreements are just due to differences in the view points and the ultimate goal is not to dismantle the other’s opinion but to shift it until our sight ranges intersect.

    What Dr. King does is awesome! He doesn’t negate the opinions of his adversaries, he doesn’t state the opposite. He manages to indirectly take out the conflicting parts of the argument and directly approve the others. He embraces the critiques and in the same time he adjusts the view point over that very critique.

    [“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action]

    These skills could prove very practical in so many aspects. After all as social beings we are in permanent conflict of ideas, as it’s the only way the exchange of ideas can occur. I guess being successful is in a great measure equivalent to being successful in dealing with conflicts.

    Finally, just a thought – I think that everyone would greatly appreciate if you would manage to write such a post in which to present these aspects of Dr. King’s letter as they directly and practically apply to our lives, the way we can integrate them in our lifestyle, like a “how to” of conflict success.

    All the best,


  26. If King had written that letter today, he would’ve blogged it as a “Top 10” bullet point list, with a picture of a cat, and at least one youtube video.

  27. In an old business communications class, I learned that whenever you make a formal communication (pitch, address, email, phone call) you have to consider the “secondary audience”–those who are stakeholders in the communication’s topic and will indirectly receive your communication (in a later meeting, forwarded email, water-cooler talk). Think for example, when you pitch a VP at a firm, you have to consider how the CEO or other decision-makers will indirectly receive the message, though they may not be present when you deliver. Perhaps like Tim, you highlight important passages, or you emphasize important takeaways, or provide a brochure.

    I see the same thing in play here as well. King addresses this letter to the clergymen who wrote the first letter. He very effectively counters their arguments, but we may suppose that at least some of them were not swayed from their original position. That doesn’t matter so much because the letter had much more influence on the secondary audience– the people in the movement, the apathetic “good people”, his direct adversaries, journalists, decision-makers in power, and the American-people in general, not only at that time but even today.

    Switching gears: Tim, King is a hero. History has its villains as well. I challenge you to analyze the effectiveness of some of history’s greatest villains as well.

  28. best thing i’ve read in ages.

    sad to say i still haven’t read it. will change. very soon.

    inspiring stuff, as always!!

    keep well t


  29. Tim,

    Absolutely love to see thoughtful posts like this.

    What I appreciate in MLK Jr.’s approach is his ability to see both sides and then appeal to moral certitude, truth and the reality within God’s true and enduring word. MLK calls out the faux “liberal” Christians who know the right thing to do, but hide behind fear; he calls out the conservative white Christians who suppress the truth; he calls out the black radicals; he calls out the moderate blacks, etc. etc.

    Truth cannot be suppressed In the end. Uber Liberals and uber conservatives (I have been both at times) are wolves hiding in sheep’s clothing refusing to see or hear the truth because of their Pride.

  30. Thanks for posting this, it’s a great example of effective conflict resolution and an even better of how to, as you said, respond to criticism.

    A few years ago I came across a book called “The Essential Gandhi,” a ~370 pager that is edited to be written entirely in Gandhi’s words using speeches, writings, etc… categorized by topic. It’s the best book of Gandhi’s work that I’ve come across and I would highly recommend it.

  31. Its nice to see someone blogging on great literature, so often all blogs talk about nowadays in modern, tech savvy stuff but to bring it back to Dr. King is a really nice change. He was a masterful conflict defuser but still managed to stand up for his values & change the mindset of an entire generation… and nation.

    Thanks for bringing light to this great piece of literature,

  32. This letter from King is fine advice for anyone wanting to start a protest. 😉

    Also, King makes good use of authority figures to back up his speech.

    By the way, Tim, have you read Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government? It is not the exact same line of thought, but deals with civil protest nevertheless.

  33. This letter from King is fine advice for anyone wanting to start a protest. 😉

    Also, Kings makes good use of authority figures to support his speech.

    By the way, Tim, have you ever read Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government? Is not the same line of thought as this letter, but deals with civil protest nevertheless.

    @Pat: lol

    – Yamir

    P.S. Si alguna vez vienes para Puerto Rico, me gustaria darte las gracias personalmente por tu libro.

  34. Beautiful, Thank you. We are in the middle of the civil rights issue of our day…the rights of gay citizens, and, yet, we are still so in the middle of another issue — what power do we have as people against the powers that influence our representatives, and what does all and any of this have to do with common sense, decency, intelligence, the desire to know about something before you form an opinion about it? Every day is either a tumultuous smile that we are moving in an evolved direction — or grief that we may be falling lower and lower. Thank you, Sarah

  35. Tim, I read your work and really enjoy it. This is new heights.

    It is a profound experience to be proud of a fellow human. Gives a awesome feeling and a great sense of a wonderful future.

    Thanks for the opportunity!


  36. Thanks Tim,

    I must confess that I had never read that letter before. I’m glad I did. Keep up the good work of sharing great ideas.


  37. I have not had a chance to read it but I am headed back to Dallas tomm and am looking forward to reading it on the plane. I usually just copy and paste it into evernote, an awesome tool for reading blog articles while on the go and without internet.

    Enjoy the waves,

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

  38. Tim –

    What an eloquent reminder that we are all truly in this together.

    Reading this letter, and more specifically the quote:

    “If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.”

    brought to mind your post from a few weeks back – Why I Started Punching Jerks Again.

    Did reading/writing this current post generate any further thoughts on how to “create a common social contract that allows for this type of correction without bullets or lawsuits flying”?

  39. Great post about a great man (one of my greatest heroes), but you have also touched on one of my pet peeves.

    Martin Luther King Jr. would have been horrified by the contemporary convention of calling him “Dr. King.” He referred to himself as “Reverend King” and saw himself primarily as a pastor, not as a PhD. If you’ll look back at contemporary news accounts you’ll see that he was usually referred to as “Reverend” there as well. All this “Dr. King” business didn’t start until after his death.

    It’s not a minor quibble. It’s completely fair to give us Christians hell for our Torquemadas, but at least give us our due for our MLK’s.

    1. Thanks for the reminder, Doublecure. I’ve corrected a number of “Dr. King”s. I left the title for many reasons, but I believe I fixed the rest.



  40. Gee Tim, thanks for the light reading. . . my first response was what a damn shame he was taken so young. Also , does anyone in power craft letters like this. Clearly thought out and articulated while sitting in jail no less ? One more thing , if you ever get a chance listen to his speech regarding the US involvement in Vietnam given in the Riverside Church in NYC in early ’68, brings tears. . . inspires me to live more meaningfully.


  41. What a strength of character the man had! Astounding…

    And from jail yet.

    Why is it so rare to see this level of personal mission, confidence, and knowledge today in leaders?

    Is it the propagation of the immediate response from criticism and the ease of the swaying of the popular masses that now dictates we have such “wishy washy” management in almost every area? Fear of the loss of opinion, power, and / or position?

    Maybe their correct…

    Look what happens when someone on TV with some clot says something about meat, or this actor/actress does something, says a slang word for gay or another unpc term, and it is immediately broadcast everywhere. Indeed there are now agencies with a sole purpose of attempting to get people fired, or vilified.

    So this is what my gift was from this post: It is really up to all of us to look inside more, and really see who we are and who we want to be. We can be A LOT stronger than we are and we can be a lot more REAL and authentic if we can visualize even a small mission to make things better.

    Thx Tim!

  42. A good post, and timely as well. I have the feeling that not too long into the future the citizens of the US will need to marshall many of these arguments simply to preserve their lives and lifestyles when the cost of the present economic policies come home to roost.

    That said, I have to beg a favor. Please, please, take the time to correct the misspellings and so on that mar the text. Yes, such things are still important; your blog is read by thousands, and it shouldn’t set an example of laziness.

    1. Your point about editing the entire text of Rev King’s letter (not just the boldfaced excerpts) is spot on because I can tell an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tool was used to scan the handwritten letter and convert it into machine readable text (for example, “an” instead of “all” in several places, “fan” instead of “fail”, and “handing” instead of “handling”). This kind of expediency and lack of a final quality check disrespects the source material. Nevertheless, I appreciate Tim’s way of extrapolating Rev King’s technique of responding to criticism in a business context while giving credence to the underlying cause of racial justice in today’s America.

  43. How much we take for granted nowadays, isn’t it?

    He was in a CTRL+F-less age. He couldn’t save the file, or backup his texts. What if it was burned before reaching the clergy, or just ignored and not published?

    Talk about “augmented brain” at that time.

    The man quoted at least a dozen times. AND HE HAD NO WIKIPEDIA OR GOOGLE TO QUOTE FROM!

    (My all caps here are supposed to be as hysterical as Louis CK’s “Oh my God, I am flying!” in “Everything’s amazing, nobody’s happy”: ).

    So, the text would be (as it still is) impressive enough nowadays for its lucid, strong arguments. Extra kudos for his memory.

    * Teaser *

    It seems that Dr. King does not agree with Pascal, who once said “If I have had more time, I would written a shorter letter.”

    Would you agree that, in this specific case, more is… well, more?


    You might want to notice that your OCR technology misread some strings in the letter — so there are some “an” where it should be “all”, and also ” k “, “6e” and the like. I am sure this is minor and perfectly compliant with Mr. Pareto’s approaches, so just pointing out in case you want to have someone proofread it.

    Um abraço,


  44. I will blame being in the UK rather than being a Philistine for not having read the lette before, but it is not an excuse. Wonderful – thanks for posting it.

  45. I of course realise that MLK was an outstanding human being in his era and therefore not necessarily “representative” of his contemporaries, but looking around one has to wonder who has this kind of charisma and guts in this day an age? Hopefully with time, I will look back in 30-40 years and such people reveal themselves in hindsight but right now nobody comes to mind.

    Vaguely along the similar lines, I’m reading J.P. Getty’s How to be rich (not how to become rich, this is not a step-by-step kind of book), who laments in a chapter entitled “the vanishing Americans” how “The voice of dissent has died away to to a barely audible whisper. Present-days specimen of the vanishing breed are generally timorous and emasculated parodies akin to medieval pedants who debated the question how many angels on the head of a pin”. This was over forty years ago!

  46. Tim,

    Thanks for posting this, I hadn’t read it before.

    In MLK’s time, the struggle was against immoral laws.

    Today, the struggle is against an immorality even greater, that of government itself. I hope someday soon, a majority of people can see the system for what it is, an extortion racket, and be willing to work to change society for the positive.

    Cheers, Kevin

  47. Tim,

    Great post! Reverend King like to say “Justice will never be given. It must be demanded!” It is important to point out that the demand for justice extends from a framework in which “justice” has meaning. That is to say, without sufficient metaphysical grounds for justice (the basis for claiming such a thing exists) the demand for it is meaningless. I recently discussed this in a blog post titled “The Return of Homo Sapiens” ( ) which discusses the intrinsic link between thinking and moral action. Rev. King did draw his program for social action from Gandhi but it grounded in a Christian metaphysical framework supplemented by existential philosophy. The way of thinking (via contemplativa) must precede the way of action (via activa) or we are left with only thoughtless and meaningless activity.

  48. Thanks Tim,

    As the caucasian father of an African son, I try to give thanks to Dr. King daily and this post really brings up a great deal of emotion…kind of rattles you and inspires/energizes you all at once.

    Good stuff!

    Chris G

  49. Thank you for posting this Tim. I have read this before when I was in middle school doing a research paper on Martin Luther King Jr. You seem to always give me a different perspective on ideas and issues. Although I don’t agree all the time it’s always good to read your perspective. It was good to read this letter again after many years.

    Honest disagreement is the first sign of progress

    -Mahatma Gandhi

  50. Thanks for posting this, Tim. It is good stuff.

    For those in the US and encountering this for the first time, don’t be too hard on yourselves. A lot of people will engage with Rev King here for the first time because 85-90% of all history studies in American high schools and universities do not use original texts. They talk about history without actually studying historical documents and other forms of evidence. [[I know because my first degree was in history at a university known for its history studies. I did not get to really work with primary sources as part of the curriculum until the third year of my BA – and I was a history major!]] The net effect is that students are inculcated with a view instead of learning how to study the data and derive a historical conclusion.

    1. Al, this is a hugely important point that you make:

      “The net effect is that students are inculcated with a view instead of learning how to study the data and derive a historical conclusion.”

      Thank you for the comment,


  51. Can you talk more about how an Angel investor can get started with start ups

    I’m looking to invest in some companies in 2010

  52. Dr. King doesn’t respond to criticism, unless it is offered by folk of good will who are trying to be constructive. -Roger ost

  53. Tim,

    Thanks for this post…..I get inspired every time I see or read about Dr. Kings movement.

    How did you come across the letter?


  54. Great post!

    Quick unsettling fact: In 1974 the median black family income was 63% of white family income. In 2004 the median black family income was 58% of white family income. (

    Another (recent) case worth looking at is the plight of the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles ( What was the largest urban farm in the US was founded on unused land that may have been illegally transferred from the city to private ownership. The farmers consist of mainly low income Latino families who had to withstand outrageous criticism from wealthy business people, politicians, and others looking to capitalize on the racial divide between Latinos and African Americans.

    The farmers had been cultivating the land for personal consumption for over ten years before they were evicted. Because of their concerted resistance and ability to recruit support, these families were able to raise over $16million to purchase the land. This was the price set by the owner. But the owner later decided not to sell the land, simply out of opposition to the farmers’ cause, which he portrayed as “getting something for nothing”. The farmers’ failure to retain the land led to the founding of the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative, which is a really impressive experiment in community supported agriculture. The organic crops are now grown on land in Bakersfield and distributed in bushels at a low cost at various drop sites in the city.

    See the recent documentary The Garden, which you can watch instantly on NetFlix.

  55. “In 1908 Tolstoy wrote, and Gandhi read, A Letter to a Hindu, which outlines the notion that only by using love as a weapon through passive resistance could the native Indian people overthrow the colonial British Empire.”

  56. Re: Mike B

    The question you raised is a good one actually. From what I have read and understood it came from a couple of areas.

    1. Leo Tolstoy’s – The Kingdom of God is Within you. Helped him understand nonviolent resistance

    2. Letters he would write to Shrimad Rajchandra ( – This relationship taught him about the religion of Jainism (which my family follows and actually was related to Rajchandra) which believes in Ahimsa the avoidance of violence. These lettters are actually also good to read if you can get your hands on them.

    3. Sermon on the Mount – Gandhi read this at University of College in London. Up until this point Gandhi states that he thought violence could be the answer in many situations but after he read Christ’s Sermon on the Mount it opened up his eyes.

    The sad thing about the whole situation is that Gandhi wanted to go to the Christian church but wasn’t allowed in due to the color of his skin (hence his quote : “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Gandhi)

    That’s from what I have read in his autiobiography and the Gandhi Reader ( a collection of the letters he would write ; the full collection is several volumes)

    Hope it helped

  57. Re : Mike B.

    I forgot to put that he was inspired by Bhagavad-Gita after he realized that he wouldn’t be a Christian. The gita become his guiding light during the revolution….


  58. This is indeed very good. The thing MLK did beautifully was assume the best about his opponents. This is a hard thing to learn, especially in political debating, where assuming the worst is the norm. But this kind of “clean” debating is very effective. Unfortunately, in our political culture, there are also rewards to “dirty” debating, and even good people who assume their opponents are idiots and use ridicule often do well (I think that’s the appeal of Jon Stewart, for example). Tim, if you haven’t heard of Suzette Elgin’s “Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense”, I think you would bring something interesting to it. She’s been an inspiration to me, a guide to the field even when I disagreed with some of her stuff (like her adoption of Satir’s work).

  59. Hey Tim, Dr. King was truly inspirational; I read this letter before but was good to read it again. Thanks for the post.

  60. Interesting to find that you’ve started to give your lazy readers “read-time” previews. Let me know if you get more clicks on those readings’ links than usual

  61. Tim,

    I’m reading a self-critical memoir about an American in Japan, which, as I laugh out loud, reminds me of your anecdote about requesting a wake up call in Japanese. I think you’ll love _The Ramen King and I_.


  62. Quick question Tim,

    This is unrelated to this post, but there’s no other way of reaching you.

    At, did you pay to use their services? Or did you use a different drop shipper?


    Nate H.

  63. I really like the line:

    “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”.

    I think this applies with everything we delay (or procrastinate) ourselves for too long also, like the next travel adventure, fun, or even retirement, which is the crux of what the 4HWW is about.

  64. @verbal Yeah, it’s really hard not to take criticism as an attack. Dr. King assumed his critics were intelligent, well informed, and well meaning, they just had the facts wrong. I think that’s really the takeaway here.

  65. Tim:

    Great post. Like many of the folks who responded, I have have never read this text. I’ve heard it referenced throughout my education, but reading it for myself helps to put many things in perspective (So all the clergy were not all on one side of the racial segregation coin).

    Also, I’m amazed at the quick response by Rev. King (4 days). I know he refers to having a lot of time on his hands while in prison, but I can’t help but wonder if the letter only took one draft. The words, arguments and tons of references (did he just have all these in his mind) are put together so well. I wish he was still here so I could ask him myself.

    Keep up the great work Tim, you have a fan over here.

    Your Ambassador,


  66. This is a powerful reminder of two things.

    1. The importance of reading the original texts (in the philosophy and physics parts of my degree, in a prestigious UK university, I didn’t read many of the original txts)

    2. The importance of action, and that as Russell said ‘Progress is ethical, Change is inevitable’

    I liked MLKs point that time doesn’t heal all wounds.

  67. “The verbal techniques, such as accepting the validity of emotions and arguments before deconstructing them, can be applied to almost all conflicts, whether in the boardroom, bedroom, or political battlefield.”

    It is also a great persuader for sales copy and negotiations. Once you accept what people say–even if you don’t agree with it–you kill a lot of the resistance factor.

    The resistance factor something that Blair Warren does a very good job of touching on.

    Thanks for printing King’s letter. There is a lot we can learn from it, both as marketers/persuaders, and as human beings.

  68. Nice post! I really like the way you incorporated history to talk about the issue of criticism and how to handle it. It was a unique and refreshing approach to the topic.

  69. Dear Staff of Tim Ferriss,

    I must say, I LOVE learning from Tim, but I would REALLY appreciate it if he would include a ‘subject heading’ related to what his emails are about, rather than just putting “new post- the blog…….”. I open a much smaller percentage of his emails because of this, as I dont want to ‘take the time’ to open it just to find out what it’s about, but often when I do, I’m eager to read it!i also, the other 1/2 of it is that when I archive them (which I do frequently since most of them that are relevant to my world are absolutely amazing) it makes it a pain in the ass to find specific subjects that he’s written about, since they all have the same subject heading. Not sure others feel the same way, but I thought I might as well express myself, with the hopes that maybe if others said the same, he would consider it.

    Thank you and please keep up the great work!


    1. Hi Bryan,

      Man, I’d love to — and have looked into it — but Feedburner is confusing in this respect. Anyone have suggestions for how to do this?



  70. Thank you for posting that, I’ve never had the opportunity to read that letter. I can’t remember the last time I was that moved from reading an argument.

    This post really motivates me to improve my writing skills, my ability to inspire people and my knowledge of history. I was particularly impressed with how he was able to pick such well chosen quotes while sitting in a jail cell.

    This post also reminds me of what we can learn from the great leaders and speakers of the past. I’ve been downloading and listening to famous political speeches recently, it’s quite interesting and rewarding to study them from the perspective of a writer or blogger.

  71. Thank you for allowing yourself to share profound material with an open mind.

    I am a black male and appreciate when others can read about MLK history as being more about issues/situations/lifestyles rather than race base literature.

    Several weeks ago I ended up on this site in error. I subscribed immediately after several readings.

    I am right where I am suppose to be…..

  72. What MLK do so greatly was show how EVERYONE was a victim of an oppressive system, he also somehow managed to show empathize with his oppressors and they were able to see that he did. He knew that they were afraid to change and he knew they had a conscience.

    Great Post Tim, I really enjoyed this one.



  73. Beautiful and stirring…Besides many others including the bits you highlighted, (I was very moved when he made the point about the little 6 year old ostracised from Funtown: “ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her mental sky’…poetic…THIS ONE SENTENCE really summed it up for me: ‘I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.’

    I appreciate how sincerely he states this without a hint of sarcasm, actually giving them the benefit of the doubt. I try to teach my children that if they can empathize with their and find the common ground, they will retain their ability to remain calm and clear in the heat of the moment. This is very difficult when their is injustice or cruelty happening….yet so disarming. It is inspiring and reinforcing to have such powerful examples as Rev. MLK.

    I feel we need to all realize how capable everyone of us is when we speak from our heart. The forced mass vaccination which may be imminent is another terrible example of ‘getting Law, not Justice’ that we will need to stand up to…Thank you for another great, thought-provoking and didactic post, Tim! xo

  74. ooops! left out a word here : ‘I try to teach my children that if they can empathize with their ‘adversaries’ and find the common ground, they will retain their ability to remain calm and clear in the heat of the moment.’

    Blissings xoShakaya

  75. Tim:

    Very nice article…my first year law professor required us to read MLK’s “Letter” as a part of our legal writing class. We weren’t focusing on the issue of race, as you pointed out as well, but were more interested in argument, prose, and logic. Glad you pointed it out.


  76. Tim, (re: Bryan’s comment) you can fix this in feedburner (only found this out a few months ago myself).

    First go into the Publicize tab area of feedburner. Next hit the email subscriptions link on the left hand side. Then hit the email branding link under subscriptions link. At that page add: “${latestItemTitle}” into the box that says “Email Subject/Title:” and it will start showing your posts titles as email headers. Please forgive if someone has already relayed this to you.

    As for this post, it’s amazing. I’ve read this in the past but it is always good to reread the originals and as many others have said, form your own truths from it. It’s great to try and read something everyday or every week like this.

    1. Thank you so much, Marie! I’ve been wondering about this for ages. I’ve made the changes, so we’ll see how it goes.

      All the best,


  77. Was my comment just tagged as spam by the blog software because it contained a wiki link, or did the powers that be think that pointing out that King plagiarized large parts of his dissertation (and so the title “Dr.” is questionable) crossed the line from “critical” (fine, according to the comment rules) into “rude”? If so, why? It seems relevant to the post title and post content. Thanks for any feedback!

    1. Hi Anthony,

      Nope. It just can take some time for me and my peeps to get around to comments. I enjoy reading most of them, so there can be a delay. It’s a totally fair observation.

      Thanks for commenting,


  78. I have never read his entire letter before – and now I’m glad that I did. I now completely understand the struggles blacks in America used to go through. I see why Martin Luther King has a place in American history. He stepped up to the impossible, he gathered his courage, he swore on his soul in order to achieve the American dream. I thank him for greatly slowing down racism. I am forever grateful for the hurdles he overcame and the trials he continued to face.

    Thank you Tim for reminding me of how to take criticism and what can happen if you handle it the way King did.

  79. Dr. King and Tom Paine should be required reading in our high schools, but administrations are fearful that students will apply their practices in the business world.

    I suspect that Dr. King’s “plagiarism” of ideas was designed specifically to serve up Whitey’s arguments in favor of liberty to the people, and then be able to say that the white man himself had stated these points, and that he had used them in admiration of those very ideas. I cannot prove this, but King had a sophisticated and subtle intelligence which would have quickly comprehended the advantages of such an approach.

    Thank you for showcasing this letter as an approach to reconciliation of conflict.