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Letter From Birmingham Jail

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The Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. is a forceful expression of his ideas concerning the future of the non-violent movement, the struggle for Black liberation, and the relationships with the white moderates and church leaders. Justifying his struggle for racial justice with convincing arguments phrased in a colourful language, King makes a strong case advocating his actions. The letter, written in response to criticism, answers many of the objections that could have been raised to the Civil Rights Movement.

Background of the Letter from Birmingham Jail

As the name suggests, Martin Luther King Jr. was writing his letter while being imprisoned in the jail of the city of Birmigham, Alabama. He got there because of his leading the protests against racial injustice in the city on April 12, 1963. In organising his peaceful demonstration, King violated the regulation in action in Alabama that prohibited demonstrations.

While in prison, he received a message signed by eight clergymen, Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray, the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings. These Alabama clergymen were writing in response to King’s actions, criticizing his instigation of what they perceived as dangerous public riots.

Martin Luther King Jr. admitted himself that the writing of a letter began “on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while [he] was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad” (King). This demonstrates the constrained circumstances under which the author was writing the message and places his ideas in context.

King, who became the priest of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1953, quickly became involved in political activities that led him to participate in numerous protest actions starting with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Each time, he and his supporters protested against segregation and oppression, against the division of the society into the oppressed black minority and the privileged white majority.

Borrowing the doctrine of non-violence and civil disobedience from the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, King said a new word in the African-American struggle for liberation, introducing the concept of peaceful boycott or demonstration. This did not preclude violence in some cases, nor did it save King’s house from bombings or himself from being arrested. Yet he persevered with his civil rights campaign that soon came to dominate the American social and political discussion in the 1960s.

King was able to move the public with the accounts of injustice inflicted on the Afro-Americans in the South mainly because the situation was really appalling. Jim Crow laws that prescribed segregation were still in effect, and poverty was widespread in the community. The churches reflected separation between races. “White” churches often proved hostile to the Black cause; in contrast, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded by King in 1957 gathered Black churches in the fight for civil rights.

Analysis of the Letter

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King’s describes what was going on in the South and other places and advocates his position with his usual eloquence. Using colourful epithets and metaphoric language, he is able to bring home his ideas with full force. It is enough to look as his metaphor when he describes “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” arguing for the interrelatedness of all processes and refusing to be treated as an outsider (King).

His message is also characterized by vivid examples that illustrate his points and lend them credibility. Thus, when he speaks about just and unjust laws and advocates the possibility to break laws when they are unjust, he remarks that “everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

This vivid example from what was then very recent history was undoubtedly very convincing to his audience. He also cites biblical evidence such as “the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake”. This example should be particularly appealing to his audience since he is addressing clergymen. As a pastor and believer himself, King, appealing to Christian concepts, creates a sense of affinity with his intended audience since the letter is indeed directly addressed at priests.

The main objective of the letter is to address the criticisms advanced by the clergymen in their message. It is difficult to state whether King had covered all their criticisms, but the ones that are tackled in his message seem to be addressed with great emphasis and skill that overpowers their objections.

As stated above, King starts out by saying that he would not like to be labelled an outsider who has no say in Birmingham matters since all things on earth are interconnected. He states his positions quite succinctly and expressly in the statement: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. Comparing his mission to that of Apostle Paul leaving his village on a pilgrimage, he once again brings up Christian matter to make his statements more convincing.

King then proceeds to outline the situation in Birmingham that justifies his demonstrations and insists that “racial injustice engulfs this community”. There have been suggestions that King had planned his campaigns so as to attract the attention to the issue of human rights, and in this case Birmingham with its outrageous segregation made a good sight.

He repudiates criticisms concerning his engagement in direct action as opposed to negotiation because he believes that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”.

Thus, non-violent action is only a prerequisite to negotiation; without it, in King’s mind, even the new, less conservative city administration would have continued with segregation. King also makes a powerful case against persisting admonitions to bide time and wait saying that for many Black people this waiting has lasted eternity and often came to mean “never”. Instead of waiting till the Black man’s rights are finally granted, he suggests active action to make this happen in the nearest future.

It is difficult to object to these demands, at least from the modern point of view. However, this happened in King’s times, which makes him lament the position of the white moderates and the white clergy. He uses polite terms to vent his bitter disappointment over the lack of support and even widespread opposition to the civil rights movement in the South on the part of the white Christians. King states that he has “wept over the laxity of the church”, however, expressing hope that “the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour”.

His most powerful argument in defense of the civil rights movement comes when he rejects to be labelled as an extremist, finally admitting that he can accept the title if being equated with Jesus’ ‘extremism for love’. King correctly points out that his program represents an alternative to the “donothingness” of those who have reconciled themselves to segregation and oppression and the violent Black Nationalism. His statement concerning the Black man that “if his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence” is very convincing.


The Letter from Birmingham Jail is a powerful argument in favor of the civil rights movement. In this document, King effectively overturns major criticisms against the movement. He refuses the call to wait, disputes the allegations of illegality, and turns down his being labelled as an outsider. In refuting these objections, King creates a persuasive picture of the Afro-Americans being oppressed and advocates against segregation.


King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail. 5 April 2006 <http://www.almaz.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html>.

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