Letter from Birmingham City Jail Summary

Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested on April 12, 1963 for breaking an unjust law against political demonstrations. He was held for twenty-four hours without being allowed his constitutional right to contact a lawyer.

  • When Martin Luther King, Jr. was finally allowed contact with the outside world, he came across a letter published in a newspaper decrying the demonstrations and calling them "unwise."
  • "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" is King's response to that letter in the newspaper. In it, he argues that he and his fellow demonstrations have a duty to fight for justice.
  • King then goes on to explain the four steps of nonviolent protest: fact finding, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. After speaking with the officials of Birmingham, King concluded that he needed to take action by leading the public demonstration. He doesn't regret his decision, nor should he.

Overview

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights revolution, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was leading demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. After a court order was issued forbidding demonstrations, King, who advocated obedience to law, decided for the first time to break an unjust law. On April 12, King was arrested for this violation and held incommunicado for twenty-four hours. When he was allowed contact, he received a copy of the Birmingham Post Herald of April 13, which carried a public letter from eight local clergymen—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—calling the demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” While the clergymen opposed segregation, they urged patience. Although King was not the addressee and the letter never mentioned his name, King began writing a reply in the margins of the newspaper, finishing it on whatever paper he could obtain. Using the classical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos, and in language that appealed to the best in American Judeo-Christian values, King’s “letter” formed the blueprint for civil rights.

King opens his letter by noting that, while he usually does not answer criticism, the sincerity of his “fellow clergymen” in calling his activities (on behalf of civil rights) “unwise and untimely” urges him to answer in “patient and reasonable terms.” King next implies that he is not an inferior to be rebuked, but he will in fact be their teacher. Using a logical arrangement of ideas, King answers each of the clergymen’s charges.

King answers the charge of being an “outsider” by asserting his organizational ties in Birmingham; more important, he is in Birmingham because “injustice is here.” Because human beings...

(The entire section is 713 words.)