"The Letter From Birmingham Jail": How Do You Read It?

Updated on August 24, 2018
Paul Dickens profile image

Paul Joseph is a popular freelance journalist and column writer. He is famous on the internet for his matchless poetical language and style

Photo courtesy, Jim Bowen
Photo courtesy, Jim Bowen | Source

Introduction Means To Impress

One can read Martin Luther King's letter "The Negro is Your Brother" simply as a letter. But I would recommend my audience to broaden its perspective to get a larger and clearer picture of King's ideas. King brilliantly invites readers’ attention to the core of his essay in its beginning sentences. The introduction contains a strong thesis lays the groundwork for the development of the subsequent paragraphs. He emphasizes his reason for coming to the city. The letter speaks of King’s concern over the civil rights of the blacks in America. The universal truth of cause and effect is implied in the context of writing this letter. King wrote this letter with a particular intention. His primary objective was to denounce the “outside agitator” idea. He successfully prepares the ground for this argument in the first three paragraphs of his essay.

“Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” (King)

The Divine Mission

The letter says that “several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary” (King). King convinces the clergymen that he is being entrusted with the mission of working for the society, and he has moved to the land. Now he is confined, and this condition he attributes to the unjust act of the ruling power. He justifies his response by stating that he cannot sit idle or remain blind to the injustice happening to his fellow citizens.

King justifies his coming to Birmingham pointing to several examples from the history and scriptures with intent to refute the view "outsiders coming in." He likens himself to the prophets of the eighth century B.C and the Apostle Paul who left their villages to carry out their divine mission. He also points out that Jesus Christ himself traveled across the Greco Roman world to preach the gospel. King, as he asserts, is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom” beyond his hometown Atlanta.

Wherever Injustice, I'm There

King wants to answer his critics, though in the beginning he says that replying to all criticism is not possible. He develops a thesis for his essay covering all essential aspects of the pertaining issue. King wrote this letter as a response to eight white clergymen who alleged that King did not give the new mayor a chance to change the situation. The clergymen, in their response named 'A Call for Unity' had claimed that the battle against racial discrimination should take place in courts, and not in the community. Also, they questioned the right of King to trouble the streets of Birmingham as he was an outsider. To answer this claim, King, in the letter, pointed out that all communities and states are interconnected. According to King, all people are being caught in ‘an inescapable network of mutuality’, and hence, if an issue affects one, it will affect all indirectly. He thus develops the main argument that one who lives inside the United States is not an outsider.

At the beginning itself, he alludes to Birmingham’s notorious racial divide saying “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” It gives the clear impression that in Birmingham the blacks faced a considerable degree of discrimination. The following sentence also reaffirms the very idea; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Brothers, Courtesy, Luis Sarabia
Brothers, Courtesy, Luis Sarabia | Source

Unjust Law Is Not to Obey

King responds to the clergymen who complained that King created high amounts of tension and social unrest. He makes clear that the methods used were nonviolent. He expresses the belief that it was necessary to create tension to make the wider society realize the kind of pressure faced by blacks all the time. Another point of the clergymen’s allegation was that the agitation was anti-law. Here, the opinion of King is that one does not have the responsibility to obey an unjust law. Instead, according to him, ‘one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’ (King).

King wants to say that his every act is intention oriented. Therefore, this "Letter from Birmingham" also intends a group of people, and they are none other than the clergymen. The reason behind writing the letter is to convince them why he has undertaken such movements. In the introduction itself, he refutes the criticism raised by the religious heads and his fellow clergymen. The letter argues that the religion neither initiated nor allowed others to fight the injustice. Eventually, King does not simply target a few of the clergymen but the entire Christianity for being neutral to the situation. It is not a criticism against the religion but a reminder of the culpable ignorance or negligence the church showed. King is to the point that the religion should understand the racial injustice or discrimination and react against it effectively. Since the church is his intended audience, indirectly he questions the responsibilities of the church. King strongly holds his view and answers his fellow clergymen who addressed his activities as "unwise and untimely."

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas” (King).

Unrest But Nonviolent

Apart from this, King tells the clergymen (the intended audience) that if he and secretaries keep on answering the criticism placed on the table, then there would have been no time to involve in the activities planned. He also states that what they have contributed is just criticisms, and it is evident from his statement, “you deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham." What King could not tolerate is the comment made by the church on the police force in a positive sense without understanding the real miseries of the Negros.

King takes a challenge since he is criticized for his timely actions as ‘untimely’. Moreover, he conveys the message that he would take further ‘direct actions campaign’ which would be planned perfectly. Postponing things is something which he further condemns to justify his acts. According to him, keeping things for later or a process of waiting means ‘never.’ There are many shreds of evidence that he points out regarding the sufferings of the Negros. He proves his argument in different ways, initially by identifying the laws as ‘just and unjust’. Also, further substantiates his argument by borrowing the idea of St. Augustine who said in his philosophical thinking ‘an unjust law is no law at all’. Moreover, there are cases he tells that law is applied unjustly through its manipulation, maybe by utilizing the concept of logic.

In total, King’s contributions deserve high appraisal because he was an American priest, an activist, reformer and a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The introduction section of King’s letter is an excellent model indicating how to prepare the ground for an essay. King’s arguments are strong enough to convince his audience that his acts are peaceful and nonviolent.

Questions & Answers


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      • Paul Dickens profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Joseph 

        19 months ago from India

        No issue Elijah A Alexander Jr,

        sharing ideas with intelligent people like you is important

        see you

      • The0NatureBoy profile image

        Elijah A Alexander Jr 

        19 months ago from Washington DC

        We can communicate via fan mail or the house on my profile is a link to my website with email we can communicate by way of. Either or both although I'm usually only online about 5 hours at most per day, just long enough to have a little battery left in my lap top's battery.

      • Paul Dickens profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Joseph 

        19 months ago from India

        Strange. hard to comprehend your viewpoints. I think I should spend much time with you to explore your findings.

      • The0NatureBoy profile image

        Elijah A Alexander Jr 

        19 months ago from Washington DC

        I generally say, Paul, "I must have been conceived in church" because, if my memory serves me correctly, much of my childhood reading was the bible and I have always felt "there is a reason for everything" so I sought to know why I was so indoctrinated in it. Once I questioned the authority of the teachers of it, and many other things, and got no satisfactory answers I began seek why my views always clashed with everyone else's. When reading if I understood what was being said I usually had a mental picture of it, with no picture no understanding could I get. So I learned to verbalize the pictures then put them together like a jig-saw puzzle.

        The first thing I did was, like I always attempted with jig-saw puzzles, find the border which is "a never ending cycle" repeating itself eternally. Then I turned the cycle into a ball and put the pieces all around it and the views you will see in my hubs is the results. That is how I came to that and all my other interpretations. A process that demands OBJECTIVITY.

      • Paul Dickens profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Joseph 

        19 months ago from India

        Elijah A Alexander Jr,

        I appreciate your reading as it opens new avenues for a re-reading of the article. The way you linked it with the Bible seems like an exciting and unusual way of interpretation.

      • The0NatureBoy profile image

        Elijah A Alexander Jr 

        19 months ago from Washington DC


        You magnificently presenting MLK's mind pertaining to the words from the Birmingham jail. As the "messenger before the messiah's face," who per Isaiah 11 was supposed to be born sometime around 1948, in my opinion you and he represented the teachings of the messiah called Jesus very well. Unlike Jesus who spoke in parables, you both spoke with clear understanding of the conditions the "prophet like unto Moses" will face for transforming the world into place of peace from what Jacob called "a lion's welp" named "Judah."

        Very well expressed, Thank you.

      • Paul Dickens profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Joseph 

        19 months ago from India

        Thanks, Mr. Venkatachari M for reading it. Your valuable comments matter a lot.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        19 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        An interesting and rational approach to this letter by Martin Luther King. One who reads it deeply should understand this innate message delivered by King.


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