Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | Key Figures

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Key Figure Description
Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68) was a leading civil rights activist in the 1950–60s. He is the author of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which he wrote during his incarceration for parading without a permit in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963. Read More
Abednego Abednego is a figure from the Bible's Book of Daniel. He is one of the three Jewish men King Nebuchadnezzar sentences to death for not worshipping his image. King offers Abednego and his friends as examples of people who successfully engaged in civil disobedience.
Alabama clergymen Eight white Alabama religious leaders—seven Christian ministers and bishops and one Jewish rabbi—responded to King's Good Friday demonstration and arrest by writing an open letter criticizing the nonviolent march, fearing such protests might "incite ... hatred and violence." Their letter was published in the Birmingham News. Under the headline, "A Call for Unity," the clergymen counseled readers to wait for desegregation to eventually come through the court system. Reading this open letter in his jail cell prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to respond with his own open "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Amos Jewish prophet (active c. 760–755 BC) during the reign of Jeroboam II. He spoke vehemently about the theme of social injustice.
St. Thomas Aquinas St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) was an Italian theologian and philosopher. King cites Aquinas's distinctions of natural law, which is moral, and human law, which is created to fit particular needs at particular times, while discussing just and unjust laws.
St. Augustine St. Augustine (354–430 CE) was a Christian theologian whose prolific writings are still studied today. Among other things, he believed laws should be examined before being instated, even if those laws are created by all-powerful rulers. King is quoting Augustine when he says, "An unjust law is no law at all."
Albert Boutwell Albert Boutwell (1904–78) was the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, from 1963–67. His defeat of Eugene "Bull" Connor in the tight mayoral election was seen by many in the city as a sign of easing racial tensions, but Boutwell, like Connor, was also a segregationist. He encouraged Birmingham's citizens to ignore any civil rights actions within the city.
Martin Buber Martin Buber (1878–1965) was an Austrian philosopher. He is best known for his book I and Thou (1923), which talks about the difference between "I—thou" and "I—it" relationships. The latter are objectifying and degrading, while the former are intimate and uplifting. King refers to this while explaining how segregation demotes humans to the status of things.
John Bunyan John Bunyan (1628–88) was an English minister. He is best known for his book The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), an allegory about Christianity. He wrote the book while in prison for refusing an order to stop teaching. King cites him as an extremist who would rather stay in jail than go against his conscience.
Eugene "Bull" Connor Eugene "Bull" Connor (1897–1973) served as Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety for 22 years. He then ran for mayor in 1963, losing a close election just weeks before the nonviolent protests began. An avid supporter of segregation, he condoned the use of brutal force to maintain the status quo of white supremacy in Birmingham. Though he was voted out of office on April 2, he refused to leave until forced by the Alabama Supreme Court on May 23.
James McBride Dabbs James McBride Dabbs (1896–1970) was a white critic of segregation and racial injustice in the South. King commends him for his help in bringing the struggle of African Americans to light in white society.
Harry Golden Harry Golden (1902–81), a white Jew, used humor to criticize segregation and racial injustice. King commends him for giving civil rights a national platform.
Adolf Hitler Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was the leader of Germany's Nazi Party and the country's eventual dictator. His nationalistic rhetoric and focus on the Aryan racial ideal were the impetus for the outbreak of World War II and the resulting Holocaust that killed 11 million "undesirables," including Jews, Roma, Poles, homosexuals, disabled people, and the elderly. In his letter King reminds readers everything Hitler did was legal but not moral or just.
Thomas Jefferson Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was the third president of the United States and one of the creators of the Declaration of Independence. King refers to Jefferson as an extremist about the equality of all men.
Jesus Jesus is a historical and literary figure whom many faiths consider to be the human embodiment of God. In the Bible he is depicted as preaching about love for all people, which is why King cites him as an extremist for love.
Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) was the 16th president of the United States. He was assassinated at the close of the Civil War and is most widely remembered for preserving the Union during that conflict and emancipating black slaves in the South. King cites him as an extremist opposed to slavery.
Martin Luther Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German theologian. He is credited as the person who sparked the divide in Western Christianity from one religion (Roman Catholicism) to several (all aspects of Protestantism, including Lutheranism and Calvinism, among others). King refers to him as an extremist in the name of religion.
Ralph McGill Ralph McGill (1898–1969), a white southerner, was the editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution and a staunch proponent of desegregation. King commends him for his support of the civil rights movement.
James Meredith James Meredith (June 25, 1933–) was the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi after having been declined admission because of his race. King cites him as a "real hero" because of the way he maintained composure in the face of hostile protestors.
Meshach Meshach is a figure from the Bible's Book of Daniel. He is one of the three Jewish men King Nebuchadnezzar sentences to death for not worshipping his image. King offers Meshach and his friends as examples of people who successfully engaged in civil disobedience.
Elijah Muhammad Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) was the leader of the Nation of Islam in the United States. He advocated for the separation of American blacks and whites into two different nations. King cites his "Muslim movement" as an example of a black nationalist group willing to turn to violence against their white oppressors.
Nebuchadnezzar II Nebuchadnezzar II was an ancient Babylonian king who ruled from approximately 605–561 BCE. In the Bible's Book of Daniel, he condemns Abednego, Meshach, and Shadrach to death via furnace for their refusal to worship an idol in his image. King uses him as an example of someone who was the target of civil disobedience.
Reinhold Niebuhr Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a white American theologian known for his theory of "Christian Realism," which focuses on the existence of original sin and emphasizes the presence of evil in everyday life. King cites Niebuhr's belief that groups are more immoral than individuals.
Paul The Apostle Paul, also known as St. Paul, is a figure who figures prominently in the Bible. An early convert to Christianity, he spread the gospel to non-Jews (known as Gentiles). King cites him as an extremist for the message of Jesus Christ.
Shadrach Shadrach is a figure from the Bible's Book of Daniel. He is one of the three Jewish men King Nebuchadnezzar sentences to death for not worshipping his image. King offers Shadrach and his friends as examples of people who successfully engaged in civil disobedience.
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (1922–2011) was the founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, an offshoot of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He fought for desegregation throughout the 1950–60s, and in 1962 he persuaded the SCLC to focus its efforts on Birmingham.
Lillian Smith Novelist Lillian Smith (1897–1966) was an outspoken white opponent of segregation and racism. Her novel about an interracial marriage, Strange Fruit (1944), was scorned in the South for its progressive viewpoint. King commends her for her activism in pursuing civil rights for all people, not just whites.
Socrates Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) was a Greek philosopher. Thought by many to be the originator of Western philosophy, he championed a mode of learning now known as "the Socratic method," which requires participants to ask and answer questions to enhance critical thinking. King refers to Socrates when discussing the need for tension in society before progress can be made.
Paul Tillich Paul Tillich (1886–1965) was a German American philosopher and theologian. Among other things, he believed to sin is to be separated from everyone, including oneself. King argues segregation is "an existential expression of man's tragic separation," or sinfulness.
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