Letter from Birmingham City Jail Characters
Because Dr. King’s letter is a work of nonfiction, it does not necessarily contain characters; however, King does cite many historical and contemporary figures to build his argument.
In the letter, King addresses the eight Alabama clergymen who alluded to King and criticized his presence and actions in Birmingham in their open letter “A Call for Unity.” The clergymen are C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Alabama; Joseph A. Durick, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham; Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama; Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church; Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church; George M. Murray, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama; Edward V. Ramage, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States; and Earl Stallings, Pastor, First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
In their open letter, these eight clergymen condemned the actions of King and his fellow protesters, calling for negotiation in the courts as opposed to protests. They do not support civil disobedience and encourage the members of their congregations and the African American community as a whole to obey the decisions of the courts while they wait for change.
In his introduction, King likens himself to the apostle Paul. Paul (who, like King, once wrote letters from a jail cell) left his hometown to promote the gospel; in the same way, King travels to cities like Birmingham to carry the “gospel of freedom.”
As King builds his argument for civil disobedience, he turns to Old Testament examples in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—three Jewish men condemned by King Nebuchadnezzar for their civil disobedience. When confronted with an unjust law, they chose to disobey in compliance to the “higher moral law” of God, and King argues that civil rights protesters are justified in doing likewise. King also admires the biblical figures of Amos, an Old Testament prophet; Jesus Christ; and the apostle Paul for being “extremists” for justice, love, and the promotion of the gospel.
Ancient and Modern Writers and Theologians
In order to explain the difference between just and unjust laws, King turns to the writings of theologians and philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber. By their logic, King concludes that the segregationist laws are unjust and should be civilly disobeyed because they go against moral law and demote “persons to the status of things.”
King refers to Socrates, seminal moral philosopher of Western thought, in his justification of civil disobedience. As he explains why he finds satisfaction in being labeled an “extremist,” King mentions John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom he considers to have been “extremists” for good.
Near the end of his letter, King expresses his...
(The entire section is 719 words.)