Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his response to criticism from eight white clergymen regarding his presence in Birmingham, Alabama, during a bus boycott brought about by egregious actions of the City of Birmingham, has more than one main point.
First, King must respond directly to the criticism that he should not have involved himself in the Birmingham racial unrest, which, according to his critics, would work itself out in time. King's larger argument is that racial inequality does not "work itself out." Rather, those who suffer from inequality must take the steps—in King's case, nonviolent steps—necessary to insure that long-overdue equality is established.
To answer the first criticism, King points out that he is in Birmingham because he has been invited by a group with which he is affiliated, and he and his followers are simply honoring their obligation to support those in Birmingham who are suffering under the dominant white power structure in that city. More importantly, however, King argues the following:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here....I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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.
King effectively extends the issue (which is not a problem unique to Birmingham) to the entire country and argues that injustice in any location threatens justice throughout the land. As a skilled preacher, he makes this point visual with his image of a "single garment of destiny": something that is all-inclusive, with whites and blacks connected in a "network of mutuality." King's point, then, is that he is in Birmingham because that city is the latest and most obvious example of racial injustice.
A second criticism from the clergymen is that King and his followers are moving too quickly to confront racial inequality:
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?"
Even though King and his followers engage in nonviolent protest, his critics argue that even this form of protest is not warranted and that, in time, Birmingham will resolve its racial problems. King replies to this argument with a short history lesson:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
King alludes to nations in places traditionally thought to be "less advanced" than the United States that are actually moving "with jetlike speed," an image that is new and startling to his readers in 1963. King subtly places the United States in the category of a backwater country with respect to racial equality.
Extending his argument about time, King points out that
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.
In other words, responding to the criticism that he and his followers are demanding too much too soon, King argues that time has no dog in the fight for racial equality, but it can be used "destructively" by opponents of racial equality who argue for endless patience.
King's letter is a masterful argument both for his presence in Birmingham during its most serious outbreak of racial unrest in the 1960s and against the clergy's argument that patience and time will, without King's form of nonviolent protest, solve the racial inequality that sparked the protests.