Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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How does King use restraint in his Letter from Birmingham Jail? What does it reveal about his purpose, and what are its effects?

Martin Luther King Jr. uses restraint in reminding his fellow clergymen of the injustices towards the Black community and, rather than shaming them, reminding them of the actions taken by Paul and the apostles and of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. When saying he would have stood for justice there, he implies that they are not standing for justice here. His purpose is to show the other clergymen how their inaction contradicts their religions convictions.

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used restraint in his approach in leading the civil rights movement, just as he uses restraint in the letter. He encouraged his followers to restrain from taking violent measures to make their grievances known and advance their cause. Instead, he advocated civil disobedience...

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used restraint in his approach in leading the civil rights movement, just as he uses restraint in the letter. He encouraged his followers to restrain from taking violent measures to make their grievances known and advance their cause. Instead, he advocated civil disobedience and peaceful protests.

We can see the consistency of these approaches in the letter. He writes to fellow clergymen and wants to explain why he is in jail in Birmingham when they, apparently, disapprove of the tactics that landed him there. He notes in the letter that the view of the other clergymen is that it would be better to negotiate than to exercise his right to perform civil disobedience. He specifically voices the question that is apparently in their minds,

Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?

Yet negotiation does not work when only one party is negotiating in good faith. He says this in the letter, but in a tone that is not challenging or chastising. He notes that he, his followers, and the Black community generally are “victims of a broken promise.” In other words, they have tried to negotiate with their oppressors to no avail. They have been lied to and any promises given by others has shortly been disavowed. In fact, as he notes in the letter,

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.

Thus, he must take action and if negotiation does not work, the choice for him is either violent action or civil disobedience. He chooses civil disobedience and compares himself to Paul to impress upon his clergy colleagues and peers that his actions have precedence. Paul and other apostles helped spread the gospel:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

He does not compare himself to Paul to elevate himself but to teach the other clergy and, in a way, to shame them for their inaction and their criticism of his actions. In fact, he says that had he been a witness to atrocities in Nazi Germany, he would have acted there. Implicitly, he criticizes their inaction (and inaction by anyone) because

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

His purpose is to show the other clergymen how their inaction belies the very precepts of their respective religions to act towards others in a fair, just, and righteous way and to speak up whenever they see injustice.

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