Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights revolution, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was leading demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. After a court order was issued forbidding demonstrations, King, who advocated obedience to law, decided for the first time to break an unjust law. On April 12, King was arrested for this violation and held incommunicado for twenty-four hours. When he was allowed contact, he received a copy of the Birmingham Post Herald of April 13, which carried a public letter from eight local clergymen—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—calling the demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” While the clergymen opposed segregation, they urged patience. Although King was not the addressee and the letter never mentioned his name, King began writing a reply in the margins of the newspaper, finishing it on whatever paper he could obtain. Using the classical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos, and in language that appealed to the best in American Judeo-Christian values, King’s “letter” formed the blueprint for civil rights.

King opens his letter by noting that, while he usually does not answer criticism, the sincerity of his “fellow clergymen” in calling his activities (on behalf of civil rights) “unwise and untimely” urges him to answer in “patient and reasonable terms.” King next implies that he is not an inferior to be rebuked, but he will in fact be their teacher. Using a logical arrangement of ideas, King answers each of the clergymen’s charges.

King answers the charge of being an “outsider” by asserting his organizational ties in Birmingham; more important, he is in Birmingham because “injustice is here.” Because human beings...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Letter from Birmingham City Jail Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Letter from Birmingham City Jail is perhaps the finest literary achievement of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It is indeed the most profound defense of his nonviolent program for the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Early in 1963, African American leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, had invited King to lead a local demonstration against segregation. King led a nonviolent protest march that resulted in his arrest on Good Friday, April 12, 1963.

The following day, a full-page advertisement, “A Call for Unity” that was signed by eight white clergy, appeared in the Birmingham News, challenging the appropriateness of King’s “outside” involvement, questioning the necessity of demonstrations, and calling for “negotiation” instead. King responded with what came to be called Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which he had written on the margins of the newspaper and on toilet paper and had smuggled from the jail. After eight days of incarceration, King was released. His letter was subsequently published in several periodicals. The events of Birmingham (owing in part to the effectiveness of King’s letter) proved to be turning points in the Civil Rights movement.

King’s article-length letter opens with a brief introduction that establishes a firm but irenic, or moderate, tone. Though jailed unjustly, King does not lash out angrily at his critics. Instead, he addresses them in disarming fashion, characterizing them as sincere men of “good will.” After this introduction, King answers one by one the charges that had been leveled against him by the eight ministers, the first criticism being that he was an outsider meddling in local affairs. He explains that his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference demands that he assist local organizations that call upon him. Second, he argues that his work is like that of the biblical prophets and apostles who had traveled far afield to challenge injustice and to bring the “gospel of freedom.” Third, he cites the principle of corporate solidarity, pointing out that the United States is a single nation whose citizens are bound in purpose and future. He states profoundly, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King then takes exception to the idea that demonstrations are too unsettling and that patient negotiation with political leaders would be a more acceptable path to racial equality. He admits that direct action disturbs the community, but he insists that segregation and racial prejudice are even more disturbing. He provides ample details to show that racial injustice is an ongoing evil in Birmingham. King writes that negotiation is in fact his goal but that demonstrations are necessary to create the tension that forces the issues into negotiation. His own experience and the testimony of history show that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the...

(The entire section is 1196 words.)

Letter from Birmingham City Jail Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bass, S. Jonathan. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Traces the backgrounds of the clergymen and the effects of King’s letter on them, showing that the reality is much more ambiguous than the myth.

Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Contends that religion played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement and examines the theological and political thinkers who influenced it.

Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002. A biography that treats its subject as human, avoiding the hagiography of earlier biographies.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. King’s account of the Civil Rights Revolution of 1963 and the forces that led up to it; it was in this work that his famous letter first appeared.

Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word That Moved America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Traces the evolution of King’s sermonic content and style. Acknowledging King’s plagiarism, Lischer maintains that King nevertheless stamped his own style on his borrowings.

Snow, Malinda. “Martin Luther King’s ’Letter from Birmingham Jail’ as Pauline Epistle.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1983): 318-334. An analysis of the letter that shows its dependence on Paul’s epistles in voice and in form.