Who does Martin Luther King, Jr. compare himself to in the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail?"

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kmj23's profile pic

kmj23 | (Level 2) Educator

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. compares himself to a number of historical and religious figures. Here are some examples:

  • In the second paragraph, he compares himself to the Apostle Paul who left his village and carried the gospel to the "far corners of the Greco-Roman world." King Jr. identifies with Paul since he is also carrying a message, one of "freedom" to places beyond his hometown.
  • Later, he compares himself to Socrates, the Classical Greek philosopher. King Jr. makes this comparison because Socrates encouraged people to ponder the difficult and deeply personal questions of life, especially relating to their belief systems. In one famous incident, he was accused of corrupting the youth, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. Likewise, King Jr. wants the American people to examine their belief systems, particularly relating to race, and to question their attitudes regarding prejudice and discrimination. He also wants to discourage his fellow African-Americans from taking a violent stance towards their oppressors, on the grounds that non-violent action is a more sensible and effective policy.
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lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. compares himself to eighth century prophets, who carried the word of God "far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns" (para. 3), and to Paul, who left home and spread the gospel of Christianity to "practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world" (para. 3).  

Like these men, King has left his home to spread the word, too, although a very different kind of word. Rather than spreading word of religion, King intends to spread word of the injustices that African-Americans are suffering from.  He calls this his "gospel of freedom" (para. 3), freedom for African-Americans from the injustices of discrimination.  

This comparison is particularly effective because King was a minister.  He was already charged with spreading the gospel of Christianity.  For him to spread the gospel of freedom was a completely logical step, consistent with his calling and his Christian principles.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Also, King clearly borrows from Henry David Thoreau when he writes,

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tell him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.