Who is Martin Luther King, Jr. compared to in the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail?"

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King addresses this letter, composed in a jail in Birmingham where he was imprisoned for his protest efforts, to his fellow clergymen who had criticized those efforts. This audience is important in understanding some of the comparisons King chooses to illustrate the need for his actions in Birmingham.

The clergymen had labeled King's efforts as "extreme." King is initially discouraged by this label but comes to consider it a compliment as he points out to them some other people who have been labeled extreme, as well:

  • Jesus was an extremist in love.
  • Amos was an extremist for justice.
  • Paul was an extremist for the gospel of Christ.
  • Martin Luther was an extremist.

He then points to other non-religious examples of positive extremism:

  • John Bunyan was an extremist.
  • Abraham Lincoln was an extremist.
  • Thomas Jefferson was an extremist.

By drawing these comparisons, King compels his audience of clergymen (and later a much larger audience following the publication of the letter) to consider that sometimes extreme efforts are needed and can produce a positive change. He mentions that he is thankful for the "white brothers" who understand the struggle and reach out in meaningful ways to help, from sitting with him on freedom rides to sitting in with him at lunch counters. King explains that these whites "have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful 'action' antidotes to combat the disease of segregation."

Through these comparisons of extremists, King aligns himself with powerful world changers who influenced history in positive ways, deflating the intended derogatory impact the label was supposed to have on him and his efforts.

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When Martin Luther King, Jr. was in jail in Birmingham in April 1963, he wrote a letter to his fellow ministers. He indicated that he was in Birmingham to protest the injustice that existed there and throughout the South. He also wanted to respond to some criticism that some of his fellow clergymen had regarding his activities.

In his letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. compares himself to some of the prophets. These prophets left their homes and carried their message of “thus saith the lord” to places far from their homeland. He mentioned that just like the Apostle Paul left his town to carry the message of Jesus Christ throughout the Greco-Roman world, he felt he needed to carry the message of freedom throughout the United States, especially in the South.

Later in his letter, he mentions that some early Christians sacrificed their lives rather than submit to unjust laws of the Roman Empire. He also stated that Socrates practiced civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr. compares himself to others in his letter from the jail in Birmingham.

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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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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.

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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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