On April 16, 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., imprisoned in an Alabama prison cell, completed work on one of the seminal texts of the American Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years after it was written, here’s a look back at the history—and lasting legacy—of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Four days earlier, on April 12, King and nearly 50 other protestors and civil rights leaders (including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth) had been arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of the Birmingham Campaign, designed to bring national attention to the brutal, racist treatment suffered by blacks in one of the most segregated cities in America—Birmingham, Alabama. For months, an organized boycott of the city’s white-owned-and-operated businesses had failed to achieve any substantive results, leaving King and others convinced they had no other options but more direct actions, ignoring a recently passed ordinance that prohibited public gathering without an official permit. For King, this arrest—his 13th—would become one of the most important of his career. Thrown into solitary confinement, King was initially denied access to his lawyers or allowed to contact his wife, until President John F. Kennedy was urged to intervene on his behalf. As previously agreed upon, King was not immediately bailed out of jail by his supporters, having instead agreed to a longer stay in jail to draw additional attention to the plight of black Americans.
Shortly after King’s arrest, a friend smuggled in a copy of an April 12 Birmingham newspaper which included an open letter, written by eight local Christian and Jewish religious leaders, which criticized both the demonstrations and King himself, whom they considered an outside agitator. Isolated in his cell, King began working on a response. Without notes or research materials, King drafted an impassioned defense of his use of nonviolent, but direct, actions. Over the course of the letter’s 7,000 words, he turned the criticism back upon both the nation’s religious leaders and more moderate-minded white Americans, castigating them for sitting passively on the sidelines while King and others risked everything agitating for change. King drew inspiration for his words from a long line of religious and political philosophers, quoting everyone from St. Augustine and Socrates to Thomas Jefferson and then-Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, who had overseen the Supreme Court’s landmark civil rights ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. For those, including the Birmingham religious leaders, who urged caution and remained convinced that time would solve the country’s racial issues, King reminded them of Warren’s own words on the need for desegregation, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And for those who thought the Atlanta-based King had no right to interfere with issues in Alabama, King argued, in one of his most famous phrases, that he could not sit “idly by in Atlanta” because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Without writing papers, King initially began by jotting down notes in the margin of the newspaper itself, before writing out portions of the work on scraps of paper he gave his attorneys, allowing a King ally, Wyatt Walker, to begin compiling the letter, which eventually ran to 21 double-spaced, typed pages. Curiously, King never sent a copy to any of the eight Birmingham clergy who he had “responded” to, leaving many to believe that he had intended it to have a much broader, national, audience all along.
King was finally released from jail on April 20, four days after penning the letter. Despite the harsh treatment he and his fellow protestors had received, King’s work in Birmingham continued. Just two weeks later, more than 1,000 schoolchildren took part in the famed “Children’s Crusade,” skipping school to march through the city streets advocating for integration and racial equality. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who King had repeatedly criticized in his letter for his harsh treatment, ordered fire hoses and police dogs be turned on the young protestors; more than 600 of them were jailed on the first day alone. The brutal and cruel police tactics on display in Alabama were broadcast on televisions around the world, horrifying many Americans. With Birmingham in chaos and businesses shuttered, local officials were forced to meet with King and agree to some, but not all, of his demands. On June 11, with the horrific events in Birmingham still seared on the American consciousness, and following Governor George Wallace’s refusal to integrate the University of Alabama until the arrival of the U.S. National Guard, President Kennedy addressed the nation, announcing his plans to present sweeping civil rights legislation to the U.S. Congress. Kennedy’s announcement, however, did little to quell the unrest in Birmingham and on September 15, 1963, a Ku Klux Klan bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four young African-American girls dead.
By this time, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail had begun to appear in publications across the country. Months earlier, Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times, had urged King to use his frequent jailing as an opportunity to write a longer defense of his use of nonviolent tactics, and though King did so, The New York Times chose not to publish it. Others did, including the Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Century, one of the most prominent Protestant magazines in the nation. In the weeks leading up to the March on Washington, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the letter as part of its fundraising efforts, and King himself used it as a basis for a book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” which looked back upon the successes and failures of the Birmingham Campaign. The book was released in July 1964, the same month that the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
Today, 50 years after it was written, King’s powerful message continues to resonate around the world–the letter is part of many American school curriculums, has been included in more than 50 published anthologies and has been translated in to more than 40 languages. In April 2013, a group of Protestant clergy released an official—albeit considerably delayed—response to King’s letter. Published in The Christian Century, one of the first publications to carry King’s own words, the letter continues King’s call to religious leaders around the world to intervene in matters of racial, social and economic justice.
Discuss Dr. King’s use of restraint in the “Letter.” What does it reveal about his purpose, and what is its effect?
Considering the context of its creation, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is remarkably restrained in tone. Throughout his career, many critics of Dr. King argued that he was too deferential to the white authorities that facilitated segregation and other racist policies, but the tone here seems to serve several purposes. First, it conforms to his ultimate purpose of justifying his cause as being in the name of justice. He does not wish to validate his audience’s deep-seeded fears - that the black movement is an extremist set that will engender violence. Therefore, by utilizing restraint, he earns a sympathetic ear to which he then declares his proud embrace of extremism and tension. His difficult arguments end up practically unimpeachable precisely because he has presented them through logos as well as through pathos. However, the restraint also allows him to reinforce one of the letter’s central themes, the interconnectedness of man. There are times when he distinguishes himself and his cause from that of his opponents, particularly in terms of race. However, he for the most part suggests that all men are responsible for all others, an idea that would not be as effective if the tone of the argument was too fiery and confrontational.
How does the “Letter” deal with the subject of race?
Considering it was written in a situation so infused with racial issues, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is often strangely divorced from explicitly racial issues. Obviously, Dr. King cannot avoid the topic, but much of his argument, especially in the letter’s first half, is presented in universalist terms and through abstractions like “justice” and the interrelatedness of man. He argues that the clergymen, and his larger audience, should support his cause not because the victims are black but because it is the right thing to do. However, this passionate but restrained argument ultimately sets the stage for a declaration of what scholar Jonathan Rieder calls “a proclamation of black self-sufficiency” (94). Once he establishes the definitions of justice and morality, Dr. King argues that the black man will succeed with or without the help of white moderates because they operate with the just ideals of both secular America and divine guidance. Further, he implicitly suggests that by continuing to facilitate the oppression of the black man through moderation, his audience is operating in sin and will ultimately be on the losing side.
Why does Dr. King decry moderation?
In Dr. King’s argument, moderation is a reflection of the moderate’s ignorant and unwitting sinfulness. In terms of the former, the white moderate operates under an illusion that patience will be more effective towards ending segregation than tension will be. Through a variety of legally-structured arguments, Dr. King illustrates the fallacy of both these assumptions. He argues that moderation is but a handy disguise for cowards who fear upsetting the status quo more than desire to pursue justice. However, because he stipulates that his audience is ostensibly interested in the virtue of justice, he argues that moderation allows them license to live in a sinfulness of inaction. To view the suffering of others but to remain silent facilitates a world where men are “separate,” which he equates with sinfulness. Through a variety of unambiguous comparisons – the just crusader to Jesus, and the moderates to those who did not protect the Jews of Nazi Germany – Dr. King decries moderation as the largest obstacle towards equal rights in America at the time.
How does the discussion of group immorality relate to the letter’s overall purpose?
One recurring idea that supports Dr. King’s arguments is that group mentality supports and enables immorality, and that the individual must therefore act for justice even when the group does not share that goal. He makes this point explicitly in the early part of the “Letter.” This argument supports his defense of civil disobedience, allows him to criticize the church for supporting the status quo rather than empowering crusaders for change, and supports the idea that law must reflect morality since it might otherwise be designed solely for the comfort of the majority. Overall, the discussion of group immorality supports his purpose of encouraging individual action in the face of injustice, and criticizing those who do not support such individual action for fear of upsetting the status quo.
Who is the letter’s intended audience?
On the surface, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is intended for the Birmingham clergymen who published an open letter criticizing the actions of Dr. King and the SCLC. And yet little by little, it becomes clear that Dr. King intends this statement for a much larger audience. Based on the arguments he makes and the stipulations he assumes, it is possible to construct the audience he means to be affected by this letter: a moderate, white, generally moral but conflicted group. He is clearly addressing people who represent the power class, but assumes in several arguments that they support the ideals of justice, at least on the surface. More specifically, he assumes they accept the validity of Christian morality. And yet his harsh tone is much more universalist than simply the criticism of the clergymen would support. In attacking moderation, he addresses himself to parties as high-ranking as the Kennedys to as everyday as students and churchgoers who are witnessing the changes of the civil rights era without admitting their own moral responsibility to support it as a quest for positive change.
Professor Jonathan Rieder argues that the “Letter” can be understood as having two sections: the “Diplomat” and “Prophet” sections. What does this mean, and how do these sections differ?
While Rieder’s designations are perhaps too tight to be perfectly applicable, they do help to understand the overall progression of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” At the beginning, Dr. King is playing a “diplomat,” attempting to reach a certain end through polite, restrained means. His hope is that he will not only defend himself against the clergymen and white moderates in general, but also that he will encourage them to support his cause. Knowing that their fears and anxieties will predispose them to doubt his call to action, he presents the call through a variety of rational arguments and personal pathos. And yet as the arguments progress, Dr. King’s attacks become less passive aggressive and more direct, moving him into a sort of “prophet” who no longer argues that he needs the support of his audience. Though he obviously would prefer it, he is firm in his commitment to justice and certain that his cause will succeed because of that commitment. By the end, he is no longer arguing, but telling his audience that change will come, and that they should join him not because he needs them, but because they need it so as to not avoid later regret over their cowardice and sinfulness.
Discuss Dr. King’s use of allusions throughout the text. How do they strengthen his argument and underscore his overall message?
Due to the extent of his higher learning, Dr. King had ready access to a number of allusions from a variety of religious and secular traditions, and he makes full use of that knowledge in the “Letter.” While each allusion serves a particular purpose in the context of the argument in which it is used, when taken together they underline two aspects of his argument. First is his argument that all men are interrelated, and responsible for one another. The multiple traditions from which Dr. King draws his allusions reflects this belief, showing his deference for and trust in a variety of approaches, including: secular theory; Jewish theology; Christian thinkers; political figures; and historical persons. Secondly, Dr. King’s use of multiple traditions for his allusions reinforces the unimpeachability of his argument. By directing the text to peoples of so many backgrounds, and using their most celebrated figures to support his case, he makes it difficult for any person to view the overall argument as separate from him or his own culture or background.
In what ways does the “Letter” attack the clergymen even when being outwardly deferential towards them?
If nothing else, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a masterpiece of pointed passive aggression. Even when he becomes more confrontational in the letter’s second half, Dr. King is always deferential, offering the possibility that the clergymen sin from ignorance or error, thereby offering them a way to backtrack. And yet his attacks are incessant, usually through implicit threats or suggestions. When he explains the many distinctions that support his cause – such as the differences between just and unjust laws, violence and nonviolence, or just means and unjust ends – he is implicitly suggesting that the clergymen are too dense to realize the nuances of the situation they have so openly criticized. In other cases, he uses unimpeachable figures – like Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln – to illustrate the basic way in which the clergymen are acting hypocritically. Finally, he uses occasional warnings, suggesting that oppressed people will inevitably fight for freedom, and so the clergymen are inviting violent revolution if they do not support Dr. King’s nonviolent crusade. Overall, the “Letter” is a litany of attacks even though it is presented more as a defense.
In what ways do Dr. King’s repeated references to Socrates help to elucidate his overall approach?
Except for Jesus Christ, Socrates is the allusion Dr. King most often uses to make his point. Though the allusion serves several particular purposes – as a symbol of wisdom or of civil disobedience – it often speaks to Dr. King’s overall approach in the “Letter.” The Socratic dialogues are masterpieces of misdirection, as Socrates does not offer answers but rather questions assertions made by other people. His overall point is ultimately made by speaking in his opponent’s language, hence showing the natural human inclination towards fallacy. Dr. King uses a similar approach, structuring most of his letter as a direct defense against the criticism published by the clergymen. By speaking in their voice, he suggests a sense of deference even as he is dismantling his opponents’ arguments and revealing them as misguided, or worse, fools. Further, he frequently uses their definitions to show how they are contradicting themselves. Though Dr. King has a more pointed suggestion to make about the world than Socrates did, he nevertheless recognized in the Socratic method a rhetorical approach that would pacify the knee-jerk defenses of his opponents so he could then defeat them.
Detail the distinction between just and unjust laws. Why is it important Dr. King make this distinction?
Arguably the most sophisticated section of the “Letter” is Dr. King’s distinction between just and unjust laws. Simply put, he suggests that just laws uphold human dignity, while unjust laws demean it. Though he makes other subsumed distinctions (like the way just and unjust laws either punish or include minorities), this general definition serves to illustrate his overarching point: that laws are not separate from morality, but instead ought to be reflections of it. Presupposing that his audience accepts the virtue of morality (and more specifically, of Judeo-Christian morality), Dr. King illustrates that unjust laws demean all men, the oppressed and oppressor both. Thus, a moral man cannot simply suffer those laws because they are the law. The argument lays the groundwork for the “Letter” to pose a call to individual action, a defense of those who stand up and sacrifice themselves and their comfort in the name of freedom and justice.