Dr. King’s tone as he begins his letter is remarkably restrained. Considering the context – he was in solitary confinement when he learned that Birmingham clergymen had together issued a statement criticizing him and praising the city’s bigoted police force – he had every reason to make his letter a rant. And yet this address announces his purpose loud and clear: he aims not to attack but to explain. Rather than indicate what separates him from the other clergy, he calls them “fellow clergymen,” underlining one of the letter’s main themes: brotherhood. Of course, there is no shortage of passive aggressive attacks and criticism throughout the letter, but the tone remains polite, deferential, at times almost apologetic, creating a friendly and ironic tone. This marvelous collection of attributes is present from these very first words.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This phrase, one of the letter’s most famous, serves several purposes. In its immediate context, it justifies why Dr. King and the SCLC have come to Birmingham; because they feel connected to and responsible for everyone, they had to come to a place that was exhibiting “injustice.” And yet the phrase also serves as a stipulation to justify many of the more controversial claims he later makes. Throughout the work, he justifies breaking laws if they are unjust, embracing extremism, and forgoing negotiations if they are not made in good faith. Because Dr. King establishes this philosophical groundwork so early on, he has unimpeachable justifications for those later claims. That is, if indeed injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, then it follows that a man interested in justice must endeavor to stop it, not just for the sake of his immediate community, but for the good of all mankind.
“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, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Throughout the “Letter,” Dr. King is careful to measure his tone, to avoid validating any knee-jerk anxieties that his audience might feel. And yet he does not carry this restraint to the point of apologizing for encouraging tension. Instead, he embraces and justifies the importance of tension. The allusion to Socrates is important, since Western civilization treats the Greek thinker as an archetype of wisdom. In truth, King is concocting a syllogism – if Socrates is good, and Socrates was right to create tension so that the mind could grow, then tension is good for inspiring mankind to grow. He is careful to stress that the tension he supports is “nonviolent,” but he does not make his intentions unclear. Similarly, the passage slyly integrates the stakes of inaction into its construction. In its final lines, Dr. King implies that proceeding without tension is going to leave man in “the dark depths of prejudice and racism.” It is a passive, implicit warning that addressing segregation without tension would be not only ineffective, but dangerous.
“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
About mid-way through the “Letter,” Dr. King declares his primary antagonist as the white moderate. Though this passage comes earlier than the explicit discussion of the white moderate, it is one of the clearest articulations of the accusation he makes against them. He directly accuses moderates of disingenuousness when they preach patience, in effect calling them liars – they say ‘wait’ but mean ‘never.’ Worse, he suggests that they lie without even realizing it. If they are not pernicious, then they are ignorant of themselves. The larger implication of this assertion is that moderation and patience must be replaced with action and impatience. To delay justice is to be cowardly and unjust. Thus, the clergymen – and the white moderate society that the represent – should not only celebrate Dr. King’s attempt to bring about justice, but join in the crusade.
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
Dr. King has an impressive ability to veer between logos (appeal to logic) and pathos (appeal to emotion), sometimes within the same argument. This excerpt is from his defense against charges of hypocrisy, which argued that he encouraged people to follow the laws that benefit him while breaking laws that do not. His logos throughout this passage clearly dismisses such a charge as simplistic. Taking for granted that his audience accepts the validity of Christian morality, he insists that one should apply this sense of morality towards the world’s complications. And yet even within this logical argument is an implicit use of pathos, as he implicitly asks the question ‘would you really want to support a law that “distorts the soul?”’ Dr. King’s argument empowers the individual to be conscientious of injustice in the world, and to let that be his guide, rather than relying on socially dictated truisms like ‘the law is the law.’
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.”
Here, Dr. King describes what happens when one relies on a law that exempts itself from moral responsibility. On several occasions in the “Letter,” he chides the clergy for representing a church that is separate from social, ‘real-world’ concerns. His argument here is that allowing a law to reign supreme without assessing its moral quality produces a situation like that of Nazi Germany. His attack here on the clergy – who seem to support ‘law and order’ without considering the repressive segregation that comes with such order – is not very subtle, comparing them to Nazis who persecuted Jews simply because their prejudices were protected by the law. What the passage does is distinguish between conformity and individual responsibility. The latter, he argues, allows for action that can change the world. By suggesting that he would have broken Nazi laws because they were unjust, he challenges his audience to do the same with segregation laws.
“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
This passage is a rather concise description of the call to arms that lies within the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Arguing that time is “neutral,” Dr. King illustrates the importance of individual action. Individuals must actively seek to create the world they want, since there is no inevitable sense of fate that will deliver it. By suggesting that “people of ill will” have understood this idea, he offers an implicit warning to his audience: if you do not support those of us seeking to do good, only bad will happen. It is a marvelous mixture of logos and pathos. He stipulates through pathos that good men want “a solid rock of human dignity,” and then argues that direct action – like that of the SCLC – is the only way to reach such a transcendent state.
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
During the first half of the “Letter,” Dr. King’s arguments are marked more by their restraint than by their fire. Showing a prudent and effective sensitivity to his audience’s fears – that angry black men are extremists who seek to destroy – he frequently takes time to define his terms before admitting to them. An early example is his discussion and defense of “tension.” However, here he shows a much greater eagerness to accept a mantle, regardless of his audience’s response. Of course, this is overstating it somewhat, since he does define and contextualize the concept of ‘extremism’ immediately before this passage, but there is nevertheless a self-satisfaction with his position here. He makes no qualms at implicitly comparing himself with Jesus (and other figures that follow), and uses an unimpeachable sentiment (“love your enemies…”) to justify his ground. He challenges his audience to disagree with the grounds on which he gladly calls himself an extremist and plans to remake the world for justice. The extension is that if their most-hated concept – extremism – is not necessarily bad, then they ought to reexamine their various attitudes and perceptions.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
Keeping with the more confrontational tone of the letter’s second half, Dr. King launches into an attack on the complacency of the contemporary church. Preceding this passage, he explains his disappointment, arguing that the church merely validates an unjust status quo, rather than being a force for social change and human betterment, an active part of the struggle for man’s dignity in a cruel world. Here, he presents the stakes of such cowardice: the church will become “irrelevant.” His language is unequivocally harsh, likening the church to a “social club” without “authenticity.” The sense of “outright disgust” is attributed to “young people,” but is arguably Dr. King’s own. Whereas most of the “Letter” operates through sleight of hand logical arguments or naked pathos, this section is unusually harsh and direct, ultimately suggesting that Dr. King is now prepared to admit that while he would like the support of his audience, he and his brothers and sisters will persevere and succeed even without it.
“For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. 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.”
By the end of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King has progressed from what professor Jonathan Rieder calls a “Diplomat” to a “Prophet.” This clear declaration of self-sufficiency reflects his ultimate sentiment: while he would like the support of his audience, he and his brothers and sisters will persevere and succeed even without it. He establishes this by referring to the greatest indignity in black American history – slavery – and yet owning that period with optimism, as an indication that the black man will triumph over any adversity. What gives them such exceptional power is that they operate with the protection of both the secular (“the sacred heritage of our nation”) and the divine (“the eternal will of God.”) Echoing his earlier arguments that the law and morality cannot be considered as independent concepts, he insists that he will triumph because he believes in justice, and implicitly warns those who do not join him that they are cowardly, promoting injustice instead. In other words, they should join his cause not only for his sake, but for their own.
Letter From Birmingham Jail Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Letter From Birmingham Jail is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The “Letter” is dated April 16, 1963, and addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” Dr. King explains that he has read the recent statement published by clergymen in a Birmingham newspaper, describing Dr. King’s recent activities in the city as “...
I think the letter is very convincing: this is why it is still considered an important document in the history of the United States. Though initially begun for a specific purpose, the letter that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while incarcerated...