Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | Main Ideas


The Time for Change Is Now

Many of Martin Luther King Jr.'s detractors, including the eight white Alabama clergymen who criticized him in the Birmingham News, said this isn't the right time for protests and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise. King contended that's because those same people have not endured the "stinging darts" of segregation. They are first-class citizens in the eyes of the law and white American culture, so they are comfortable with the status quo. Their common refrain is "wait," but in King's experience, "'wait' has almost always meant 'never.'" King will wait no longer. Blacks have waited 340 years for their "God-given and constitutional rights" in the United States, and no additional waiting will change the minds and laws of a nation that subjects a large group of its citizens to ill treatment. It is up to the oppressed to take charge and demand equality. The wheels of change are already in motion, and it is better to jump on board while the movement is gaining momentum rather than stay behind in the past.

Nature of Segregation

King is writing for two distinct audiences: blacks who have thus far disassociated themselves from the "moderate" faction of the civil rights movement and whites who do not fully support the ideologies and actions of the movement. It is for the latter group that King explains the harsh realities of being the "inferior" in a segregated society. He describes the humiliation of "when your first name becomes 'nigger'" and "your middle name becomes 'boy'" and of the pain felt when black children realize society values them less because of the color of their skin. He writes about being "plagued with inner fears and outer resentments," not to gain sympathy for his "degenerating sense of 'nobodyness,'" but to call forth empathy and understanding from his readers. If people really knew what it felt like to be discriminated against, perhaps they wouldn't support such bias.

King also appeals to his readers' sense of morality and justice by outlining the faults of segregation as an enforceable, though sometimes unspoken, law. Segregation is used to debase one population (blacks) while uplifting another (whites), which makes it immoral in the eyes of God. Immoral laws are laws that are neither just nor fair. According to St. Augustine's logic, unjust laws aren't actually laws, so they don't have to be followed. King believes people are under a moral obligation to oppose segregation by refusing to abide by the so-called laws that govern the practice.

Failings of the White Moderate

The "white moderate[s]" to whom King refers throughout the text are white Americans who say they agree with the notion of desegregation but criticize the manner in which civil rights activists go about achieving it. This group, which also includes the majority of the white clergy, is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of racial equality. The demeaning and "paternalistic" attitude of white moderates shows a lack of real understanding about the realities of segregation. It is this group that perpetuates the notion that time, not human intervention, will be the great equalizer—which discourages others to join the campaign for civil rights.

King is further disappointed with the white clergy because of their inclination to overlook the immorality of segregation—which directly conflicts with Christ's teachings—in favor of maintaining the status quo. King argues it is the role of the Church's leaders to stand up for what is morally right without a second thought about legalities and politics, yet the white Church "stand[s] on the sidelines and merely mouth[s] pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities." In ignoring their black brothers' and sisters' struggles, the white Church had committed itself to "a completely otherworldly religion" soon to be "dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning."

Hope for the Future

King's parting thoughts are not of the battles of the present or the disappointments of the past but of his belief that the civil rights movement will ultimately be successful because "the goal of America is freedom." Black people have been part of the United States since before the country's founding. They endured "brutal injustice and shameful humiliation" at the hands of slave owners, and if that didn't stop them, "the opposition [they] now face will surely fail." King foresees a future where people will recognize the personal and professional sacrifices made by civil rights activists in the past so they and their children could "reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation."

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