Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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King says he seldom answers criticism in the Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Why not? Why, then, does he decide to do so in this instance?

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When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied the country to press for more civil liberties for people of color, he was not met with kindness and acceptance in many areas he visited. In both the North and the South, many people didn't like King's message or tactics, and he was...

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When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied the country to press for more civil liberties for people of color, he was not met with kindness and acceptance in many areas he visited. In both the North and the South, many people didn't like King's message or tactics, and he was labeled both an "extremist" and "anti-American." Thus, he couldn't possibly have responded to every criticism that was sent his way. In fact, in the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, he acknowledges that if he did so he "would have no time for constructive work."

Part of the reason King chose to respond to this particular criticism is because it came from the clergy, and as a pastor himself, their criticism struck a particular discord with King. In his letter, he hoped to appeal to their common love for Christ and common knowledge of Godly principles to align them in purpose.

As a spiritual leader himself, King points to several arguments presented by the white pastors and rabbis that did not align with the Godly principles they are supposed to espouse. For example, the group condemns King's peaceful protests because they lead to violent outcomes. But King asserts that this is like condemning a robbed man for having the money which eventually led to his being robbed. Instead, he calls for the men to join him in being "coworkers with God."

The group also calls King's actions in Birmingham as "extreme." King explains that this perplexed him initially, but he has come to favor the idea. After all, Jesus was an extremist in love. Job was an extremist in in justice. Paul was an extremist in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther was an extremist. Abraham Lincoln was an extremist. Thomas Jefferson was an extremist. King therefore concludes:

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

King also wants the group to know that he has been disappointed in the churches they lead. He points to some exceptions where clergy have opened their doors to African Americans, attempting to truly desegregate congregations, but notes that overall the clergy has not been helpful in the struggle for Civil Rights:

I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

King closes the letter respectfully and asks his fellow members of the clergy to reconsider stances they support which further divide the nation spiritually and which preserve "the evil system of segregation." He hopes that, when history remembers his actions in Birmingham, it will be evident that he stood for the "most sacred values in...Judeo-Christian heritage."

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Dr. King chooses to respond to the white clergymen's criticism because it is a specific criticism aimed at the strategy that he's chosen to adopt. He makes a point of not responding to general criticism, much of which will doubtless have been abusive and destructive.

King also sees the white clergymen's criticism as a catalyst for a full and frank debate among Christians as to the right way forward in the civil rights struggle. King accepts his critics as decent, honest Christians. What he cannot accept is their narrowly legalistic approach to the issue. This debate between the letter of the law and its spirit has been at the heart of Christianity since its very inception, and so King will have seen his open letter as an opportunity to contribute to that debate. Among other things, this would allow him to place the debate over the correct strategy for the civil rights movement in a much wider context, imbuing it with a greater significance than it would otherwise have had. King understands that this isn't simply a question of political strategy; it's also a moral issue. More specifically, it's an issue that goes to the heart of Christian morality. Hence the urgent necessity of King's departure from his normal practice of not responding to criticism.

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There are two main reasons why Dr. King chose to respond to this particular criticism.

The first is the actual recommendation of the writers: to pursue change through the courts rather than public demonstrations. This advice is much more than a personal criticism. It is a challenge to the civil rights movement and, by extension, to all African Americans, so it warrants an answer.

A second good reason is to establish his belief in the good intentions of the writers. He wants them to know that he believes they are sincere in their motivations of making America better. In doing so he treats them as honorable and emphasizes the similarities between them and him, including shared faith. This approach also extends his message of equality among all Americans.

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There are a couple of elements that are happening in the question.  One reality is that Dr. King feels so convinced in the authenticity of his cause that he does not see the need to respond to criticism of it.  Dr. King believes that "work" and "deeds" are more important than rhetorical response:

Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.

In this phrasing, he is able to draw out an important Biblical parallel in how figures like Jesus focused more on work and actual deeds than mere words.  "Constructive work" is the fundamental justification behind why he does not answer critics of what he does.  Dr. King pulls from the Biblical idea that individuals must commit themselves to work and service of a higher ideal and not worry about the external justification that might result.  Living for an ideal is far more important than capitulating to criticism of it.

In the setting of the letter, Dr. King is able to respond to the clergy who criticized him because the fellow clergy who criticized him "are men of genuine good will" and that their "criticisms are sincerely set forth."  It is for this reason that Dr. King addresses their concern.  Similar to Gandhi's own writing while in jail, Dr. King understands that his imprisonment offers him an opportunity to articulate why he does what he does.  It gives him a chance to speak out for what he deems important.  In doing so, he demonstrates a sincere respect for those who have criticized him and in recognition of their intrinsic worth as members of clergy, Dr. King offers a response from the insides of a jail that might house his body, but not his spirit of resistance.

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