Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
In “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. justifies the decisions he has taken while leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in his campaign to end segregation in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. King addresses the criticisms that eight Southern clergymen had published against him and other civil rights activists.
King begins by giving a powerful justification for his presence and actions in Birmingham. The clergymen accused King of being an “outsider” who is meddling in the affairs of a city that is not his own. To this, King famously declares that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that he is morally obligated to fight for freedom wherever it is needed. Moreover, King is not an “outsider,” because he is within the United States, has organizational ties to Birmingham, and was in fact invited to bring his campaign of nonviolent protest there.
Having thus established his legitimacy as an authority in the Birmingham civil rights struggle, King moves on to address the other criticisms laid against him. The clergymen have labeled recent civil rights efforts as “unwise and untimely” and claim that negotiation is the better option. King proves that waiting for negotiation will be of no use, offering a specific protest as an example: activists had attempted to work with White leaders in the city to remove humiliating racial signs in stores, but the White leadership did not follow through on their promises. King demonstrates through this example that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor” and that the authorities must be prodded into taking action to dismantle segregation; therefore, waiting for negotiation will be of no use. Through this example, King renders these two points of criticism invalid.
King moves on to the next critique and validates the clergymen’s concern over civil rights leaders’ willingness to break laws: advocating for compliance to the Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate schools, but not to Birmingham’s segregationist laws, does seem hypocritical. However, King justifies their civil disobedience by distinguishing between just and unjust laws. He gives an example of civil disobedience from the Old Testament—that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to bow down to Nebachudnezzar in obedience to God—that both his Christian and Jewish addressees would be familiar with, drawing upon their sense of religious duty. He then cites the poignant and recent example of people who aided Jews during the Holocaust, in spite of laws against this. In both of these examples, civil disobedience was surely the righteous option, just as it is in the context of the civil rights movement.
The clergymen have blamed King and other civil rights activists for instigating violence. King effectively dismisses this on logical grounds: is the victim of a robbery to be blamed “because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery”? Finally, King addresses the clergymen’s label of the civil rights activists as “extreme.” Instead of contradicting this, King instead embraces the label. Religious and historical figures of the past—like Jesus, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson—have been considered heroes for their “extremism” for good. Remembering the noble struggles of these “extremists” before him, King presents the label as an honor to bear.
Having rebutted the clergymen’s criticisms on religious, historical, and logical terms, King devotes the remainder of his letter to his own criticisms against the White church leadership. While some support the civil rights movement in theory, King accuses them of waiting and watching “silent[ly] behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows” by preaching compliance to segregationist policies. He calls upon the church leadership to...
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imitate the early church, who shaped society rather than reacted to it. He asserts that “the judgment of God is upon the church as never before,” again appealing to church leaders’ sense of moral and religious duty.
King closes his letter by giving his authority further credibility: his letter was not written “from a comfortable desk” but a jail cell, as he had been arrested for his struggles for equality in Birmingham. He asks for his addressees’ forgiveness if he has understated the truth and God’s forgiveness if he has overstated it, giving his letter a tone of humility and sincerity.