Letter from Birmingham City Jail Themes

The main themes in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” include justice, civil disobedience, and Christianity. 

  • Justice: King argues that denying justice to one person threatens justice for everyone. For African Americans, justice will not simply arrive—it must be fought for.
  • Civil disobedience: King demonstrates that there are both just and unjust laws and that people are morally obligated to disobey those that are unjust.
  • Christianity: King draws on Christian values and beliefs to argue that every human being deserves justice and freedom from tyranny. Churches should encourage civil disobedience to unjust laws rather than insist on adherence to them for the sake of obedience.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Civil Disobedience

Dr. King’s critics denounce his willingness to break laws in struggling for equality. King argues that not all laws are alike: there are both just and unjust laws, and he cites many examples of both. The Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in 1954, for example, was just,...

(The entire section contains 1044 words.)

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Civil Disobedience

Dr. King’s critics denounce his willingness to break laws in struggling for equality. King argues that not all laws are alike: there are both just and unjust laws, and he cites many examples of both. The Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools in 1954, for example, was just, while segregationist laws are unjust. For examples from history, King reminds readers of the unjust law of Hitler’s Germany against assisting Jews during the Holocaust and the unjust anti-religious laws in communist countries. 

King quotes multiple theologians and philosophers, who state that unjust laws go against God’s law and moral law. Because of this, people are morally obligated to disobey them. Laws that are inflicted on a minority who did not help create them, that are not applied equally to the minority and the majority, or that degrade humans to the status of “things” are unjust, King explains. He declares segregationist laws to be sinful and the civil disobedience of civil rights protesters to be justified. 

Nonviolent Protest

The methods and actions of Dr. King and the civil rights groups in Birmingham are rooted in nonviolence. In his letter, King affirms the necessity of nonviolent protest and explains its aim: to “establish . . . creative tension” and force communities to confront issues they have otherwise refused to confront. While King’s critics would prefer that he call for negotiation instead of protest, King explains that negotiation is indeed the goal—but segregated communities like Birmingham will not negotiate in productive ways unless the “creative tension” brought about by protest is present. 

Nonviolent protest is also made necessary by its alternative. King writes that if repressed emotions of discontent are not expressed through nonviolent means, “they will come out in ominous expressions of violence.” King encourages his supporters to channel their discontent in peaceful ways, because the alternative is bloodshed: without a nonviolent option, many would turn to the violent methods of Black nationalist groups. 

The Case for Urgent Action

Many of the White moderates of the South hold the view that equal rights will inevitably come to African Americans in due time. According to King, the White moderates and lukewarm supporters of the civil rights struggle are a bigger hindrance to progress than the Ku Klux Klan because they “live by the myth of time” and are “more devoted to order than justice.” King denounces the view that time itself will bring about change and expresses his frustration that African Americans, who have waited so long for justice and equal rights, must continue to wait. It is not time itself that brings about progress—people must work for positive change. 

He compares the slow pace of change in the United States with the great speed at which freedom is spreading in Africa and Asia. Historically, waiting hasn’t worked: King cites the example of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights’s decision to hold off protests against racial signs in Birmingham. Shopkeepers had promised to remove racial signs, but never did, and the civil rights activists were forced to once again demand the change that had been promised to them. As this example demonstrates, change “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability” but must be fought for. After all the Black community has suffered in segregated and racist communities, King asserts that protests should not be held off any longer.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

In his argument for nonviolent activism, King fused the tradition of civil disobedience exemplified by Socrates, Henry David Thoreau, and Mahatma Gandhi and voiced by Reinhold Niebuhr with the Protestant Christianity King had absorbed from birth. Since King’s consciousness was formed by the Church—his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Baptist ministers—he saw the world through the lens of the King James Bible (though that lens was enlarged by the studies that culminated in his Ph.D. degree). King’s language is infused with the biblical idiom. The grand simplicity by which the Bible expresses complex ideas, the majesty of its earthy images, the parallelism and antitheses of its sentences—all are characteristic of King’s style.

Furthermore, the structure and the voice of the letter are those of the epistle writers of the New Testament. Like Peter or Paul, King speaks to recipients who share his Christian faith but who err in the implementation of that faith. King believed that White liberals, and particularly the White church, are too optimistic about human nature; time, he says, will not automatically lead to justice.

In spite of his lack of optimism about human nature, love formed the core of King’s message. The essence of the New Testament is charity, derived from the examples of Jesus and from its statement by Paul in I Corinthians 13. King loved not only his Black brothers but also his White oppressors. Segregation stunted the personalities of both: In Black people, it has produced a nagging sense of invisibility; in Whites, it aborted their natural charity. It violated the “I-Thou” relation that Martin Buber claimed is the only proper basis for human connection.

King was pessimistic enough about human nature to understand the importance of sacrifice to realize distant goals. From the supreme sacrifice of Jesus himself, King knew that nonviolent objectors to segregation must be willing to give even their lives for their cause. Over the years, King became convinced of his own martyrdom; his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered the night before his assassination, was prophetic of his own death.

King dreamed of a future America aligned with that of the Puritans, who formulated the American Dream and promulgated it through the centuries. They envisioned America as a “shining city on a hill” that would be a beacon for the world. Though King’s dream was partly eschatological and partly temporal, he incorporated the “shining city” into his vision, where it became the Beloved Community. Whatever the Puritans’ blindness in implementing that dream, they wove it into the fabric of America; it is articulated eloquently by the Constitution, by the Declaration of Independence, by Abraham Lincoln, and by John F. Kennedy. In 1963, at the time King wrote his letter from Birmingham Jail, America had fallen short of its vision; King reminded America of all individuals’ radiant humanity.

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