Letter from Birmingham City Jail Summary

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” responds to criticism against him and outlines the ideology of nonviolent protest.

  • Eight Birmingham clergymen had published a letter in a newspaper decrying the demonstrations of King and his followers. 
  • King argues that his participation in and organization of protests have been warranted and necessary. He writes that he and his fellow demonstrators have a duty to fight for justice. 
  • King explains the four steps of nonviolent protest: fact finding, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. 
  • To conclude, King justifies civil disobedience and expresses his disappointment in the inaction of the Southern churches.

Summary

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980

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On April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for his participation in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. That same day, eight clergymen from Birmingham published a letter in the Birmingham News that indirectly called out King and condemned the methods of the civil rights protesters.

From his jail cell, King penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” responding to the charges the clergymen had laid against him and his supporters. King’s letter was widely published and read, and he later included a revised version of the letter in his book Why We Can’t Wait. The letter became an essential text of the civil rights movement for its advocacy of nonviolent protest and justifications of civil disobedience. 

Summary

King begins his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” by stating that he doesn’t often respond to his critics, but since the eight “fellow clergymen” who wrote the article against him are “men of genuine good will,” he is electing to respond to their concerns. 

The first complaint that King addresses is that he and his staff are “outsiders” in Birmingham and are meddling in the affairs of a city that isn’t their own. To this, he replies that he has organizational ties to Birmingham, as he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was also invited by an affiliate organization. He has also been called to Birmingham by his moral conscience: he desires to carry the “gospel of freedom” everywhere. He famously declares that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere” and avers that no American citizen can be an outsider in the US. Having defended his presence in Birmingham, King condemns the clergymen’s eagerness to denounce the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham but not the social and racial issues that have necessitated them. 

Dr. King next outlines the procedure for nonviolent resistance: “collection of facts . . . negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He then addresses the clergymen’s accusations that he and his organization’s actions have been untimely and rash and that they should have worked through the city’s political and judicial channels. Negotiation, King assures, has been attempted but proven ineffective. Through the example of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights’s protest against racial signs in stores, Dr. King proves that civil rights organizations in Birmingham have carefully considered their timing and methods: protesters were prepared with a series of workshops on nonviolence, and the protest itself was postponed a number of times so as to not interfere with the 1963 mayoral election in which they hoped to see Bull Conner defeated.

King acknowledges that the clergymen’s concern about his willingness to break laws is valid. However, King explains that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. To explain how one distinguishes between the two, King draws upon the writings of Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Just laws are those that are aligned with “the moral law, or the law of God”; an unjust law goes against moral law. Any law that degrades a person to the status of a “thing,” as segregationist laws do, is “morally wrong and sinful.” Additionally, unjust laws can be identified by those who create and enforce them. A law that is “inflicted upon a minority” that does not apply in the same way to the majority is unjust, as is a law that applies to the minority when the minority did not help create it. 

Having demonstrated the differences between just and unjust laws, King then builds a case for civil disobedience, citing multiple examples from history. Biblical figures like Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego were justified in their disobedience to Nebuchadnezzar because they were following the law of God. People who aided Jews in Hitler’s Germany, King reminds, were breaking the law, but certainly this was justified. 

King next expresses his disappointment in White moderates whose inaction proves that they value order over justice. He rejects the notion that his activity in Birmingham is to be condemned because it leads to violence: this is like blaming the victim of a robbery because he possessed money that led to the robbery. 

Dr. King’s tactics have been described as “extremist” by the clergymen, and when he first read their letter, he rejected the label: he has given the people a way to channel their discontent in a peaceful way. However, upon reflection, King is satisfied to be called extreme, and he reminds the clergymen that great biblical and historical figures were labeled as extremists too. What matters is not one’s label as an extremist, but the motives behind their extremism: “Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love?”

Having defended his actions and methods in leading the civil rights movement in Birmingham, King then critiques the behavior of the Southern churches. While some advocate for desegregation, many insist on complying with the segregationist laws. The Christian church was powerful in the days when its members sought to shape and alter society and to align it with moral law. They, too, were labeled as “outsiders” and blamed for disturbing the peace. Whether or not the Southern churches come to the aid of the civil rights movement, King has confidence that freedom will be achieved, because it is both God’s will and the very backbone of America. 

King closes by expressing his gratitude to Whites willing to stand beside African Americans in the civil rights struggle and his disappointment that the clergymen praise the Birmingham police rather than the nonviolent demonstrators. The letter concludes with King asking the clergymen to forgive him if he has understated the truth and God to forgive him if he has overstated it. He signs it with the valediction “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”

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