Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | Summary

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Summary

Introduction

Martin Luther King Jr. opens his letter with an explanation of why he has chosen to respond to the clergymen's public statement opposing his involvement in Birmingham's nonviolent protests. He argues his presence in the city is warranted by an invitation from the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national organization over which he presides. "Beyond this," he is in Birmingham because "injustice is here." He says he cannot remain in Atlanta when he knows there are problems in Birmingham because "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He notes the clergymen are worried about the protests in Birmingham yet show no concern about "the white power structure ... [that] left the Negro community with no other alternative."

Nonviolent Protest

King outlines the four steps to nonviolent protest and how they have been used in Birmingham:

  • Identification of injustice: King calls Birmingham "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." It has an "ugly record of police brutality," its court system is unfair, and it is known for widespread bombings of black homes and churches.
  • Negotiation: In September 1962, Birmingham's black leaders worked with white leaders to make changes in the community, including the removal of "humiliating racial signs" from local businesses. Only a few signs were removed, and they were soon reinstated.
  • Self-purification: Some of Birmingham's black citizenry, including those involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, began preparations for nonviolent action. This included careful thought about exactly when to stage the protest and training in nonviolent tactics.
  • Direct action: King and his allies staged sit-ins and marches throughout Birmingham.

King then addresses some of the questions put forth by opponents of his process. He explains the purpose of direct action is to spur negotiation by creating "such a crisis and establish[ing] such creative tension" that a community that formerly refused negotiations is forced to "confront the issue." There is a difference between violent and nonviolent tension, and the latter is "necessary for growth." He agrees with his critics' call for negotiation and encourages all parties to cease their "tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue."

He then addresses the question of timing; namely, the critique that he and his allies should wait to see how the new city administration handles the matter of racial integration. His reply to that is though the new mayor, Mr. Boutwell, is "much more gentle ... than Mr. Connor," he is still a segregationist. Furthermore, there is never a good time for "those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation" to change their values and mindsets. Black people are told to "wait" for the right time, which usually ends up being "never." King gives a laundry list of reasons why black people can wait no longer, including poverty, physical brutality, condescension, disrespect, lack of opportunity, and the bitterness even their children feel toward white people.

Types of Law

King says there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. Just laws are rules created by humans that align with the law of God. They are moral and do no harm. Unjust laws "degrad[e] human personality" and are "out of harmony with the moral law." Segregation, for example, is unjust because it "distorts the soul and damages the personality" by making the segregator feel superior while the segregated feel inferior. Alternatively, the 1954 ruling by the Supreme Court desegregating public schools is a just law because it harms no one. Just laws should be followed, but unjust laws should be tested and, when necessary, disregarded.

King argues that most of the laws in Alabama can be considered unjust because of the way they were created. In most cases blacks did not help create the laws leading to their debasement—those laws are "inflicted upon [them]." Voting restrictions prevent black citizens from electing officials who represent their interests, so none of the decisions made in the governing body are truly democratic and can therefore be considered unjust. In some instances, "a law is just on its face and unjust in its application." For example, King was arrested for parading without a permit. That's a just law, but not when it's "used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly." Because the law was used as a way to infringe his rights, it is unjust. King closes this section with a reminder that in Nazi Germany "everything Hitler did ... was 'legal,'" although no one today would label his actions as just.

White Moderates and Extremism

King says the biggest obstacle to freedom for black people is not extremists such as the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, but a group he refers to as "the white moderate." White moderates agree changes need to be made, but they disagree with King's methods of achieving change. They believe even peaceful action can result in violence, to which King argues the immorality of telling individuals to stop their efforts to obtain basic human rights. He likens this to the victim of a robbery being blamed for having money when instead it is society's duty to "protect the robbed and punish the robber."

King says white moderates think equality will come, but there's no reason to rush it and that black people should wait for "a more convenient season." King says this "shallow understanding" from people who mean well "is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." The admonishments to wait for a better time come across both as paternalistic and ignorant. White people don't know what it's like to be discriminated against because of the color of their skin, so they have no right to say how and when the topic of desegregation should be addressed. Furthermore, it is not time that makes change but "the tireless efforts ... of men willing to be coworkers with God."

King feels he stands between two opposing forces in the black community: those who have been so beaten down by oppression that they have "adjusted" to segregation and those who are so bitter and full of hate they come "perilously close to advocating violence." He was at first shocked to hear his own nonviolent protest categorized as a form of extremism, but he has since come around to embrace the label of "extremist." He is in good company—Jesus was an extremist for love, Abraham Lincoln was an extremist opposed to slavery, and John Bunyan (the author of The Pilgrim's Progress) was an extremist who would rather be jailed than "make a mockery" of his conscience.

King is proud to be an extremist in pursuit of justice, and though he is disappointed by white moderates' understanding of the African American experience, he acknowledges the contributions of white allies in "this social revolution." These people report about the struggle for equality, join the sit-ins and protests, and suffer the abuse and slurs of police officers alongside King and African American participants. Unlike moderate whites they "have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful 'action.'"

The White Church

In addition to his disappointment with white moderates, King is also dismayed by the lack of action on the part of the white Church. With just a few exceptions, he finds white religious leaders in the South to be more concerned with the law of the land rather than with the law of God. He had hoped men of the Church would "see the justice of [the] cause" and have a "deep moral concern" that could be translated into real change, but he instead hears of ministers telling their congregations these types of "social issues" have nothing to do with the gospel. He points out there once was a time when the Church had the power to transform society. Early Christians—"small in number ... [but] big in commitment"—suffered for their beliefs and ultimately ended the "evils of infanticide and gladiatorial contest." Now the Church is "a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound" focused entirely on maintaining things the way they are. He warns "the judgment of God is upon the church as never before." If it can't "recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church" it will lose the loyalty of its followers.

King hopes the white Church will rise to the occasion but adds its support isn't necessary for success. He believes he and his followers will prevail in Birmingham and around the country because "the goal of America is freedom." Just as African Americans persevered through the horrors of slavery to fight for freedom, they will continue to do so now, because "the sacred heritage" of the United States and the "will of God" are on their side.

King ends his letter with one more rebuke. In their statement the white clergymen praised the Birmingham police for maintaining "order" and "preventing violence." King refutes that praise by detailing what the white clergy may have missed: the officers urging their dogs to attack unarmed, nonviolent protestors, and physically and verbally abusing women and children in the jail, as well as withholding food from those in custody. While it's true that in public the police abstained from violence, they did so to uphold an immoral law. Just as it is "wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends," King states it is also wrong "to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." King wishes the clergymen had commended the protesters "for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer," and their ability to remain calm when provoked.

In closing, King apologizes for the length of his letter, then points out there's not much to do in a jail cell except "write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers."

Analysis

Background, Audience, and Purpose for Writing

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. He was charged with violating an injunction against the nonviolent public protests spearheaded by his civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a Birmingham activist group. The protestors hampered daily life in the city by staging boycotts of the community's retail stores, marching on city hall, and bringing business at lunch counters to a standstill with organized sit-ins. All activities were in opposition to the city's strict segregation laws. That same day an open letter from eight white Alabama clergymen was published in the Birmingham News. The statement was a public condemnation of King's methods of nonviolent protest as well as his very presence in Birmingham. The clergymen did not send the letter directly to King, nor did they mention his name. Instead they directed the letter to a broader audience—black men and women who either supported the protests or had yet to take a position—and encouraged them to "withdraw support" from the public protests and "unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham."

Thanks to a friend, King read the clergymen's letter on his first day in jail and immediately started crafting a response, which is now commonly known as "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Historians have long debated whether King's letter was a spur-of-the-moment response to the clergymen's condemnation or if it was a carefully considered public relations move to boost the visibility of the civil rights movement. One thing is certain though—King directs his letter to the clergymen but intends it for a broader audience, specifically "white moderate[s]." These people have little to no understanding of the struggles of African Americans in the South, yet they feel blacks are pushing for change too quickly.

King is also reaching out to black Americans who fail to see the value of nonviolent protest. King doesn't limit himself to the borders of Birmingham or even Alabama—he makes his argument to the entire nation. "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states," he writes, then argues what affects individuals in one place will ultimately affect people in other areas. With just a few sentences he turns a local disagreement into a national conversation.

Major Arguments

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is best classified as a persuasive essay, whose goal is to convince readers that the author's viewpoint is correct. Most persuasive essays are structured in the same way: the author makes a claim; supports the claim with facts, evidence, and logic; and, in some cases, refutes common counterarguments made by the opposition. King's goal is to convince readers racial segregation must end, and he does so by refuting or commenting on every claim made by the white clergymen, paragraph by paragraph in the order in which the arguments were initially raised. King in turn argues in support of nonviolent protest, against the unjustness of immoral laws, and against the white moderates' "wait and see" attitude toward social change.

Nonviolent protest is justified: King agrees with the clergymen's desire for peaceful negotiation, but he also points out something they failed to mention: local civil rights leaders have tried negotiation in the past but were ignored. King argues the city's hollow promises and lack of concrete action justify more strident attempts on the part of civil rights leaders, including nonviolent protests. These types of peaceful demonstrations are meant to draw attention to a marginalized group whose collective voice has been overlooked, oftentimes purposefully. As King describes it, the goal of nonviolent protest is to open the doors to negotiation. That's exactly what the clergymen want, and King commends them for it. "You are exactly right in your call for negotiation," he writes. This simple statement suddenly positions King and the clergymen as allies instead of opponents while justifying the very actions the clergymen denounced.

The unjustness of immoral laws: The clergymen took issue with Birmingham civil rights leaders' willingness to break laws in the name of social progress. King counters their argument by saying there are two types of laws: those that are just and should be upheld and those that are unjust and should be broken.

  • Just laws are moral, or in line with "the law of God." They "uplift" the human spirit. One of the key aspects of a just law is that those who made it are also willing to follow it. It impacts everyone the same way. They were made with the common good in mind, which makes them moral.
  • Unjust laws are immoral and "out of harmony" with the law of God. They "degrad[e] human personality" by making one group feel inferior to another group. This is the case with segregation, which King says "distorts the soul and damages the personality." A law can also be considered unjust if it is not applicable to the people who designed it, as is the case with segregation laws. White men made the laws, but their rights were not hampered by them. King argues that any law made by a legislative body that does not adequately represent the entire population is also unjust. Because there are several counties in Alabama where blacks constitute a majority of the population yet none of them are registered to vote, it is entirely possible that laws made by the Alabama legislative body are all unjust.

King points out some laws seem just on the surface, but when put into practice they turn out to be unjust. He gives the example of his own arrest on April 12, 1963. He was arresting for parading without a permit, which is a law that applies to everyone equally. But "when [it] is used to preserve segregation" and deny people their right to peaceful assembly, then it is unjust.

King agrees with St. Augustine's idea that "an unjust law is no law at all," which means laws that are unjust don't have to be followed. From his point of view, the classification of segregation as a set of unjust laws means neither he, nor any other black person, is legally bound to abide by the unfair practices.

White moderates stand in the way of social progress: King argues the major roadblock to racial equality is not radical white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan but people who present themselves as allies yet resist efforts to make change. This group, whom King refers to as "white moderate[s]," includes members of the white clergy as well as the general white population. As shown in the open letter, white moderates argue it is better to wait for the courts to implement change. They believe it is more important to maintain peace rather than achieve justice for all. King refutes that idea by comparing the situation to a robbery. The robber (white lawmakers) takes basic human rights away from the robbed (black citizens), yet it is the robbed who are punished when they decide to take back what is rightfully theirs. Telling someone they can't try to reclaim their constitutional rights just because it might lead to violence is immoral, an idea with which the federal courts agree.

King contends it is the leaders of the white Church who have given white moderates a feeling of apathy about desegregation. Instead of leading the cause for what is morally right—equality for all—they "have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows." This is a far cry from the Christian Church of old, where believers risked themselves for what they believed to be morally and spiritually right. Afraid to make waves, the modern Church endorses the status quo and shies away from change, even if it is the moral choice. Unless the leaders of the white Church explicitly denounce the immorality of inequality, white moderates will continue to ignore the need for change.

Persuasive Rhetoric

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is an exemplary model of persuasive writing not only because of the strength of King's arguments but also because of his masterful use of persuasive rhetoric. King strengthens and clarifies his arguments with figurative language, historical allusions, and emotional appeals. His techniques are rooted in the traditional form of many religious sermons that puts the focus on the feelings the preacher is trying to elicit from his congregation rather than the theme of the speech itself. It is characterized by an almost melodic formula of repetition and rhythm to encourage congregation members to remember the points being made and, often, to respond.

As a minister born into family heavily involved in the black Church, it is only natural King's writing would reflect these influences. It is particularly apparent in the section about King's embrace of extremism. "Was not _____ an extremist?" he asks over and over again while providing quotes from each of his chosen examples. Repetition is also found in his list of indignities suffered by black Americans—"When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers," "when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering," "when you are harried by day and haunted by night," and so on. This use of repetition, as well as the repeated alliteration (tongue twisted, speech stammering, harried by day and haunted by night) establishes a rhythm that draws readers in and gives them a sense of familiarity and kinship with the text as King hammers home his point.

Figurative Language: Metaphors, Similes, and Allusions

King uses figurative language as a means of emphasizing his points. By definition, figurative language is the use of language to make an impact beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves. This can take the form of metaphors or similes, which compare one thing to something else; allusions, which connect the author's thoughts to those of someone else; or other literary techniques including personification and hyperbole. In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King makes effective use of metaphors and allusions.

  • Metaphors are words or phrases that compare an object or idea without the use of the comparison words like or as. King uses metaphors to vividly describe the situations and feelings affecting those who are subject to segregation. Nationwide, blacks are "tied in a single garment of destiny." In Birmingham, "the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon" civil rights activists pushing for integration. He calls segregation a "disease" for which "powerful 'action'" is the only antidote, while the Church, which was once a thermostat that changed the temperature of society, now only reads, but does not react to, the national mood. These comparisons form images that will stay with readers longer than lengthy and literal explanations of King's ideas.
  • Allusions are casual and often indirect references to people, places, or events within a text. King's allusions are by no means subtle—he explicitly names historical figures whose ideas mirror his own. The most interesting thing about these references is the breadth of figures he includes as sources of inspiration. Some, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, John Bunyan, and Reinhold Niebuhr, would be easily recognizable only by the highly educated, while others, such as Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Adolf Hitler, are names known by just about everyone. King references four distinct classes of historical figures: the philosophers and theologians, the names that need little introduction (Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, and Hitler), the locals (Albert Boutwell, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph McGill), and the biblical (Jesus, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Each reader will recognize at least one of the names mentioned. These references strengthen the bond between King and his readers and encourage readers to agree with King's points.

Biblical allusions play an important role in King's presentation of the problem and of himself as a leader. He writes often of Jesus, a man who is attacked for his message of peace and love, just as the eight white clergymen have verbally attacked King. Jesus is a savior, which is the role King is ultimately playing. King is also like Paul, the apostle, who spreads the gospel beyond his hometown. These allusions are even more impactful when one considers King's supposed audience for the letter—eight white clergymen representing the Christian and Jewish faiths. They—more than anybody else—would be familiar with biblical history, and it would be difficult for them to argue against King's summary of scripture. By pointing out how much he and his supporters are like Jesus and his followers, King is highlighting how very un-Christian the white Church really is. It is a subtle and somewhat sneaky way of casting the eight clergymen as villains and King and other civil rights activists as heroes.

Finally, these techniques highlight the depth of King's education, knowledge, and wisdom. Part of the argument for the long-held prejudice against blacks in the United States was that they were incapable of rational thought or that they were similar to children or animals, who needed to be led and who were at best amoral, incapable of making reasoned, ethical decisions. King's ability to write such a letter; the sophistication of his rhetoric; the breadth and depth of his literary, spiritual, and philosophical allusions; and his not-too-subtle self-comparisons to religious leaders all serve to undermine these arguments.

Light and Dark

One of the most significant images King uses throughout the essay is the twin distinction between light and dark and between depth and height, which operates at three different levels—literal, religious, and philosophic. One such example comes when he chastises white moderates for failing to support the black community in its time of need: "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?"

The words and images are simple shorthand for white and black people, but King complicates these concepts through the additional religious and philosophic meanings he evokes. As a Christian minister, he evokes the image as it is frequently done in the Bible to equate with the concepts of sin and grace. To live in darkness is to live in sin, without an understanding of God's love. The light symbolizes a state of grace in which God's love both embraces and flows from the sinner, most dramatically in the story of Paul, who was blinded by the light on the road to Damascus and thus converted to Christianity.

Likewise, in philosophic texts dating back to Plato's Republic (c. 380 BCE), darkness is depicted as a state of ignorance. In Republic people living in a cave imagine that the shadows they see are real and invent stories to explain them. Only after great effort are people able to emerge into the light of knowledge to see what is real and how they have been fooled by shadows for their whole lives. King is certainly referencing Greek philosopher Plato's allegory of the cave when he talks about "help[ing] men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." Plato's allegory of the cave explores the effects of education or its lack on human nature.

The imagery is brought together most stunningly when King concludes "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."

Tone

Tone, or the author's attitude about a subject or audience, is also an important part of persuasive writing. King opens his letter with respectful friendliness, calling the eight white clergymen to whom writes "men of genuine good will." There is also a feeling of weariness in his words when he notes he hopes he can express his ideas in a patient and reasonable manner. His exhaustion can be heard in his lengthy description of what it is like to raise a family in a segregated society. That fatigue edges into frustration when he chastises the white moderates and the white Church. "Maybe I expected too much," he says of those he assumed would be allies. His disappointment in white moderates and their religious leaders is palpable, and he was wronged by the people best suited to help him. There is such a thing as righteous anger, and though King's words are polite at the end of the letter, his anger is evident as he writes about the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. He closes politely but firmly, asking God to forgive him if it seems he will settle for "anything less than brotherhood." In the most genial way possible, he tells the world he will not back down until there is racial equality for all.

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