Letter From Birmingham Jail

How does Dr. King make use of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent civil-disobedience? Does Dr. King, like Gandhi, believe that non-violence needs to be an active process, or does he believe that non-violent civil disobedience must be passive?

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The philosophy of civil disobedience is central to Dr. King’s philosophy. He had long been an admirer of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and of Mahatma Gandhi’s manifestation of those philosophies. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he provides a measured explanation and defense of the philosophy. Knowing that any support for breaking the law has the potential to frighten his audience, he uses a legalistic tone in this section.

There are two primary methods he uses to defend civil disobedience. First is to distinguish civil disobedience from “anarchy.” He argues that he actually shows “the highest respect for the law” because he is willing to serve the penalty for breaking it. He does not break the law from a duty to himself and his ego, but from his duty to his fellow man. If all men are connected, if injustice anywhere hurts everyone, then he feels compelled to not only break an unjust law but to suffer the penalty of that unjust law in order to dramatize and illustrate its pernicious effect. As he writes this letter from incarceration, it is a difficult argument to counter (176).