Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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How is "Letter from Birmingham Jail" a foundational document?

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Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a foundational document of the Civil Rights Movement. It is couched in stately language and contains rhetoric which deliberately recalls that of the Founding Fathers, as well as many other great orators and philosophers, some of whom King explicitly names and quotes. Gnomic phrases, such as "justice too long delayed is justice denied" and "an unjust law is no law at all" pithily sum up the ideas that are eloquently expounded in the longer passages. The letter represents some of King's most memorable writing, and conveys many of his core values and ideals. Also, like the documents upon which the United States was founded, King's letter encapsulates foundational principles. In this case, it outlines those which animated the civil rights movement. It is one of the principal documents that assists us in understanding that struggle today. Its significance and prescience hearkens back to other important American documents.

The foundational documents of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are full of stately and stirring phrases. They are so familiar that they have become proverbial. Brilliantly forceful writers and profound thinkers created them. Even more fundamentally, they are foundational because they founded something—in this case a new Republic. Those who want to understand the United States still look to the documents which reveal the basis upon which it was founded.

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