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Writing a Letter from Birmingham Jail analysis essay offers the student the gift of going back in time to the courage and ferocity of the Civil Rights Movement to examine one of the most eloquent documents of that era. The Civil Rights Era was one of the uglier periods in American history—and one of the most triumphant and inspiring. No document embodies this dichotomy as fully as King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, King details many of the horrors that black Americans have suffered at the hands of white hatred and complacency. Yet, the letter is without a doubt, a document of hope and conviction, inspiration and profundity. This paper details the background circumstances that provoked King in writing the letter and examines closely the brilliance contained in the words, ultimately discussing why it remains such a lauded document even today.
Letter from Birmingham Jail is often unanimously lauded as being the seminal primary document from the Civil Rights era (Brymer, 2014). Many scholars find it even more compelling than King’s I Have Dream Speech. King wrote the letter while imprisoned after the Birmingham campaign. This campaign commenced on April 3, 1963 with various forms of non-violent protest in Birmingham, Alabama as a means of protesting the evils of racism and racial segregation (Rieder, 2014). The two main factions that united during these protests were King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the group the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). One of the local judges issued a blanket injunction against all forms of protesting and the leaders of the non-violent resistance, King included, yet they decided to protest anyway (Rieder, 2014). King, among a few other leaders of the movement were arrested on April 12th. Under imprisonment, many have speculated that the intention of those in power was to break King’s spirit: he was placed in a dark cell without even a mattress and was not allowed a singe phone call. Some have speculated that for King, this cell was like a dungeon of despair (Rieder, 2014). However, “a black trustee sneaked him a Birmingham newspaper along with his breakfast. Opening the paper, King happened upon “A Call for Unity” by eight of Alabama’s leading white clergymen… Every one of them had signed the January ‘An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense’ that urged obedience to court decision that ordered desegregation” (Reider, 2014). This statement must have been staggering to King, given his circumstances and the good fight he was involved in. However, the tone-deaf, willfully unfair nature of it inspired one of the greatest living documents about justice and race relations in America that we have ever known.
One of the most striking aspects of the letter is the fact that King is able to craft it from a prison cell without the help of any research texts to aid him. It all comes from his memory and education. He’s able to accurately cite some of the greatest minds of the human race, quoting everyone from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thomas Jefferson. In terms of scholarship it is a masterful document and one would think that he crafted it from within the depths of a university research library rather than within the narrow quarters of a jail cell. The document demonstrates that King’s mind was an exceedingly rich place and one where he was able to gather the most inspiring quotations and philosophies from some of the greatest thinkers the human race has ever encountered.
The letter shows how King is able to very artfully redirect the criticism that has been cast upon him and show how the white Americans and religious leaders who dared to hurl tone-deaf criticism on him are actually the ones who dare undermine justice and the greater good in this country. It is easy, King repeatedly demonstrates, to sit idly on the sidelines passively watching while the injustices of the era don’t impact one directly. This indictment was so necessary because King and his supporters really did risk everything in order to create meaningful change for a world that had been nothing but unkind to him and his children.
King’s letter responded to the criticism that was waged at him by this biased (and presumably corrupt) clergymen, point by point. The crux of their argument was that when people want to fight social injustice, they should do so within the confines of the laws in place. The main point these clergymen attempted to highlight, was that breaking the law is never okay, even when it comes to righting a social wrong. King was able to turn this argument on its head, showing its inherent fallibility and how such a mindset only serves to protect those in power. The triumph of this letter is that King is able to respond to this fallibility through arguments based on religious, legal, and historical ideas. As a citizen, he is able to call out the nightmarish circumstances for so many African Americans, while using strong persuasive tactics to sway the sensibilities towards his viewpoint. At its core, the letter is a tremendous justification for the methods, strategies and objectives of the Birmingham campaign, as architected by him, and of the greater Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
Another beacon of light that the letter provided was that King offered a fresh perspective on the myopic disapproval voiced by the clergymen in regards to the tensions manifested by the acts of non-violent resistance. King was able to offer a clear explanation of how they were attempting to actively create “constructive tensions as a means of provoking worthwhile negotiations with those who were in control of political power. Just as important, King illustrated that because so many earlier negotiations had failed, black Americans had no other options. This he illustrated clearly.
An additional aspect of defense and explanation that King had to address was the attack the clergymen had made regarding the overall timing of the campaign. Essentially, these community leaders argued that it would have been better if the black community had waited to engage in such “extreme” action. King showed how his group, the SCLC had already made a decision to wait, as a means of regrouping a better overall strategy—a decision which indicated a high amount of responsibility. However, one of the more insightful things that King insightfully points out is that throughout history, “wait” often means “never.” It is the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” that Shakespeare speaks of that never actually comes. As an accountable citizen and one is who is willing to make courageous actions to create change in society, King knows that in order to correct the imbalance of society, swift action must be taken regardless of what the current law is. The letter further asserts the necessity of civil disobedience, meditates on extremism, expresses frustration with white moderates, and alludes to the necessity of the clergymen to praise the courage of the protesters rather than the police, who had happened to act non-violently during this one incidence.
King opens the letter by explaining why he is in Birmingham, since he is a minister based in Atlanta. The reason he addresses this practical question first is because that was one of the first strains of criticisms the clergymen had posted in their statement. These clergymen were up in arms for a variety of reasons, but one of the first reasons they expressed their displeasure was as a result of “outsiders coming in.” Many of the protestors coming into participate in the Birmingham campaign were not local to the community.
King addresses this in a two-fold manner: he offers the practical reason why his section of the SCLC was there, as well as a philosophical reason. The practical reason King describes details how SCLC is not localized to any one southern state, but operates throughout the south. The organization shares team members and resources with all affiliating chapters. King explained that they were there because they received an invitation from a colleague part of the Birmingham chapter of SCLC as a result of their organizational connections. This practical explanation is important because it shatters the illusion that King and his protestors are just people creating drama in a city they don’t even live in.
However, more memorably King explains that he is in Birmingham “because injustice is here.” King compares the work that he is doing to that of eighth-century prophets carrying the word of God to villages beyond their hometowns or to the work of Paul the Apostle sharing the Gospel to all the communities within the Greco-Roman region. This comparison is so essential because its creates a platform for King to argue that he too is following in their footsteps and sharing his own “gospel of freedom.” Furthermore, King argues, all communities and states are interconnected and when injustices occur in a state that is not his own, he is unable to sit idly by. He then delivers one of the most famous quotes of this letter, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The simplicity of this assertion is powerful in its truth and explains the gravity of the situation and the sheer necessity of King’s arrival with his followers.
King also politely shames the clergymen for their condemnation of the protestors in saying, “I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Obviously, King’s phrasing here “I am sure that each of you would want…” very pointedly illuminates the fact that these clergymen have in fact done nothing but examine the superficial effects without taking a minute to grapple with the debilitating social causes that have allowed injustice to thrive. Because of these rampant injustices, “the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”
King then offers the hard brutal facts about the realities of Birmingham as a city in the segregated south. “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation.” Asserting these facts about Birmingham is essential because it allows King to highlight the very strong need for him and his people to come to Birmingham in order to directly confront the injustices that are allowed to thrive there. Offering this crucial background information about the city shows that it is in certain respects a city in a crisis of humanity. Something must be done, because the black Americans there have no other alternatives and racial tensions are starting to become fraught.
As King explains, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Here King aptly calls the white community out for their role in perpetuating these nightmarish injustices through their lack of action, their complacency with segregation, and their tendency to look the other way when black people and families were affronted with senseless violence. King makes it clear that he is staunchly against violent tension but that the tension he creates with his protesters and supporters is a kind that is forcing the hand of society to create change that is long overdue.
King addresses the patronizing contention that the clergymen released in their statement regarding that these acts of protest were untimely. King memorably asserts “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Such a statement, in its minimalism, can’t help but harken back to history, and force the reader to recall how so many other oppressed people only received anything near equality when they forced the hand of their oppressors and of those who benefited from their suffering. King then ponders what it would mean for a direct-action movement to be “well-timed” as viewed by the people who have never been forced to deal with revolting hand of segregation. “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’” King continues to call out the members of the white population for their lack of urgency or forward action in helping their fellow citizens. Through this speech King is able to show how toxic and insidious it is to ask members of an oppressed class to “wait” until it is convenient for the oppressors to consider changing the codes of society. King scathingly asserts that “justice too long delayed is justice denied” and then compares how nations ins Asia and Africa are rapidly evolving towards political independence, but in America, black people are still struggling to earn the right to get a cup of coffee at lunch counter beside white citizens.
Perhaps the most powerful section of this letter is the emotional appeal that follows where King points the morbid, destructive, annihilating ugliness of the reality of being black in the segregated south. King shows the horrors of the violence that he and his fellow people have witnessed through vicious mobs, vicious police officers. King describes the devastating economic disparities that ensure that black people live with poverty. The most compelling part of this speech is when King gives us a glimpse of his inner life as a father, and how he struggles to explain the evils of segregation to his daughter. This emotional appeal is so effective because nearly every reader can feel for the innocence of the child that is being shattered by a cruel society. King writes:
“…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people.”
Finally King is able to refocus the perspective that his methods are “extreme.” He aptly reminds the reader that he has sought to channel the discontent of black people via the route of non-violent resistance. King effectively uses vivid imagery to demonstrate the importance of this choice: “If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.” The picture of this part of the nation being dominated by rivers of blood that sweep the people away is a compelling one. It paints an ominous picture that there is nothing extreme about non-violent resistance. Violent resistance is extreme and it would be tragic for the society—causing violence, destruction and deaths of those young and old, white and black.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This is perhaps the most often-quoted part of King’s letter. It is brilliant in its simplicity as it demonstrates the insidious nature of injustice: allowing it to thrive in any capacity or any manifestation means that it gains momentum. This creates a perilous situation for the rest of society, society’s members and the freedoms they enjoy.
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This is one of the most insightful remarks about human existence, but also in regards to the lasting effects of segregation. Segregation, while benefiting whites in some ways, also dragged them down in others. Here King urges all members of society to not deny the connection that exists between them, as doing so is unproductive.
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Here King shows not only his scholarly prowess, but paints a clear picture of the undeniable benefits of constructive tension. Tension creates a certain amount of pressure that pushes man to evolve to a higher level of self. In this case, King and his supporters were creating a more productive, widespread tension within society, in order to force society to evolve to a higher level of acceptance and justice.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Eons of history support this statement and demonstrate that if the playing field is ever going to be equal for those in captivity or suffering from injustice, the oppressed have to be the ones to take action. This suggests that hoping the oppressors will have a change of heart and “do the right thing” is both naive and ineffective.
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.”
This quote is so eloquent as it captures the realities of segregation for so many people in the south. Injustice does more than create an imbalance scale, it poisons the lives of so many.
“..there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”
King provides justification for the civil disobedience that guides the work of so many of his protestors. The marches, the demonstrations, the sit-ins, along with breaking many of the codes of segregation of the era—these are all the violations of unjust laws. As King illustrates, unjust laws keep society in a place of stagnancy and unrest.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Here King encapsulates the confusing and bewildering aspects connected to the white complacency that helped to enable segregation. The shallow understanding of whites and the lack of empathy to the suffering of their fellow citizens must have been bewildering at times, particularly when these whites considered themselves to be good Christians.
“It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.”
King writes this in response to a white Christian who wrote him suggesting that he was perhaps in too much of a hurry to achieve his goals and end segregation. King shows the evils inherent within the passivity that time will just correct everything eventually. This is a notion upheld by people who don’t care much about the suffering of their fellow humans, and who have an unrealistic conception of all that the passage of time can achieve.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.”
King describes his wisdom about human behavior and human existence, as he has seen it and has he has studied it. This statement shows how oppression is not the answer as it will always be a temporary answer selected by an imbalanced society.
“I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
King makes this remark in order to summarize why he was wrong about expecting more white church and white citizens to be their allies. He suggests that whites have benefited from being the oppressors and in doing so, blacks (including him) should not have expected them to lend a helping hand.
“I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.”
This quote is so powerful because it gives the reader a glimpse into why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the entire civil rights movement was so successful. King had certainty of his success not just because of an unwavering belief in himself, but also because of his lucid understanding of the “bigger picture” of what they were trying to accomplish. He understood that at the end of the day they were all Americans and that freedom was an indelible part of the American experience.
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
This quote is an expansion of King’s earlier thought and demonstrates that black Americans had overcome worse evils than segregation. King asserts his confidence in their eventual triumph as they are on the side of good and that God is ultimately behind them.
Volumes could be written about how Letter from Birmingham Jail is significant today. American history and society continues to be turbulent even after the Civil Rights Movement. Muslims, members of the LGBTQ community, women and black Americans continue to have to fight for fairness and a level playing field. As one scholar wrote, “Whether it’s the measures perverting the cloak of religious freedom to provide cover for discrimination against the LGBTQ community or continuing issues with the criminal justice system and voting rights, or the assault on women’s health and agency over their own bodies, or the fear mongering against Muslim Americans, these issues and others lay bare the words of Dr. King: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Strides have been made; of that there can be no doubt. But the seeds of inequality and injustice, no matter how seemingly benign, are corrosive and powerful – and are still scattered throughout our nation” (Rice, 2017). More Americans need to be aware of the words of Dr. King, of his insight and eloquence and to more actively embody the principles he discusses.
As a contemporary scholar of the Civil Rights movement, one can’t help but be grateful to the eight myopic and bigoted white clergymen who signed their name to the statement that condemned the non-violent resistance movement that King led. This is because it provoked a piece of writing so eloquent and full of such profound truths about the nature of the human experience that it is still quoted and referred back to even today. Dr. King may not have been aware that he was crafting a document from a jail cell that would transcend time and would be a source of inspiration and comfort for generations to come. Yet, that is precisely what he accomplished. Letter from Birmingham Jail still remains one of the seminal documents of the Civil Rights Movement, and of the concept of justice within the human experience.
Brymer, J. (2014, April 17). MLK’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ Called Most important Document of Civil Rights Era. Retrieved from https://www.samford.edu/news/2013/MLKs-Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail-Called-Most-important-Document-of-Civil-Rights-Era
King, M. L. (1963, August). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf
Rice, K. (2017, January 13). A Martin Luther King Jr. Must-Read ? and Why It’s As Relevant Today. Retrieved from http://www.signature-reads.com/2017/01/mlk-jr-must-read-relevant-today/
Rieder, J. (2014). Gospel of freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham jail and the struggle that changed a nation.
Engaging in a Letter from Birmingham Jail analysis essay gives one the deeply meaningful opportunity to understand how and why this document was able to transcend the time and place of the Civil Rights era in the segregated south. Any analysis essay on this primary source will have to confront the many weighty truths that King elegantly crafts regarding subjects that are eternal to human existence—things like justice, truth, morality, humanity, empathy, triumph, and destiny. The document delivers some of the most profound ideas so simply, and thus they are able to resonate today with much power. The letter both immortalizes the King and the words contained.