What ideas and emotions in the letter had the greatest impact on you?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Martin Luther King's August 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail certainly evinces the discipline and intellect which this leader possessed; indeed, he stands in great contrast to some who would call themselves Civil Rights activists today.

Having read Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, and studied the non-violent approach to protest of Ghandi, as well as being well-educated as a man and a minister, Dr. King is able to employ many reasonable points in his letter.

  • African-Americans have made no gains in civil rights without legal and non-violent pressure.

Groups who are more privileged than others rarely relinquish their privileges to others, King states. He alludes to the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed segregation in education and, subsequently, racial segregation was then ruled a violation of under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Despite this law, however, Alabama remains segregated because of measures passed in that state, legislation which was enacted unjustly because many African-Americans could not vote. 

  • Dr. King states that non-violent protests have been staged because "an unjust law is no law at all."

He has been arrested because his group had no permit to protest; however, permits are for parades and such. The First Amendment allows all citizens the right to peaceful assembly and peaceful protest. King continues saying that his people only wish to protest in a nonviolent manner and create a dialogue. These actions are necessary:

I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure

King adds, 

...freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed

Then, King states with poignancy that the world "wait" usually means "never," and "justice too long delayed is justice denied." He adds that his people have been waiting 340 years for social justice, evoking emotional pictures of children who do not understand why they are denied entry into certain places such as amusement parks and adults who are prohibited from entering restaurants and hotels and such because of prohibitive signs. 

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

King rejects the words of the white moderates to wait and be patient, contending that oppressed people cannot remain in this state of oppression forever. He is also disappointed in the churches that have shown no leadership. He repudiates the Black Muslim movement led by Elijah Muhammad that advocates violence; however, he adds that if the whites do not respond to the nonviolent protesters, then such leaders as Elijah Muhammad may easily gain control.

  • Oppression will be overcome in some fashion

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.

Dr. King continues to emphasize the nonviolent approach although he concedes that his people may need to become extremists in order to be heard. But, he asks, "Was not Jesus an extremist?" It is not whether one is an extremist; it is what type of extremist one is. Dr. King and his protesters will, therefore, become extremists for the cause of freedom, but in a non-violent manner. Again, he calls upon churches to support this cause or they will lose its credibility:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

  • Finally, Dr. King reaffirms his convictions that America will not deny the African-American his rights because the non-violent protesters are only asking for what are their inalienable rights written into the Constitution:

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Read the study guide:
Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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