Letter From Birmingham Jail

In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. invokes passages from "The Grettysburg Address," The Declaration of Independence, and the Bible. Why do you think he references these sources? How do these sources help make his letter more powerful

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Dr. King employs a large number of historical examples to defend his use of civil disobedience. These range from the secular to the deeply religious. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are figures mentioned in the Biblical book of Daniel; Socrates is the archetype of human wisdom; the early Christians are heroes to anyone of that faith; and the Boston Tea Party is one of America’s first stabs at declaring independence from Britain. By providing unimpeachable examples, he challenges the clergymen to attack him for practicing his civil disobedience. Yet again, this is also an implicit attack on the clergymen for their apparent simplicity: they cannot tell the difference between civil disobedience and anarchy.

Finally, it is worth considering how Dr. King’s many allusions work to underline his message of togetherness. One could certainly criticize him for showing off his academic background, but the myriad traditions he draws from – St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas from Christian philosophy, Martin Buber from Jewish theology, the Boston Tea Party from American history, and more – reinforce the argument that all men are connected. When considered together, traditions inform universal truth.