Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
Start Free Trial

In his opening paragraph of his letter, King says that he rarely pauses to answer criticisms, but he is replying to the clergymen because what?

King criticizes the clergy for not joining him in the fight for equality and justice for African Americans.
This image has been Flagged as inappropriate Click to unflag
Image (1 of 1)

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the opening paragraph of Martin Luther King’s speech “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King states that he rarely replies to criticisms because if he were to answer every criticism, it would leave him little time to carry out his mission of trying to obtain equality and justice for African Americans. He writes, “Since I feel that you are men of genuine goodwill and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” Because King is himself a member of the clergy, he relies heavily on morality, ethics and common Christian doctrine to argue that he and the Southern Christian Leadership’s presence in Birmingham, Alabama was both wise and timely. King addresses the main criticism that he and his group are “outside agitators”. He writes:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid (King).

By comparing the injustices faced by African Americans in the south to the apostles who carried Christianity to the world, King is able to illustrate the necessity of his presence in Alabama. His presence he states, “answers the call” of the people in Birmingham.

King also responds to the clergy’s criticism that King’s presence in Birmingham was unwise. He states, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” King argues that the urgency of injustice makes his presence both timely and wise. Because King believes that the clergy encompasses some of the same morals and values as he does, he answers their criticism of his being in Birmingham.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team