Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary and Analysis of "But more basically, I am in Birmingham..." through "...live in monologue rather than dialogue."


Having given his legal justification for being in Birmingham, Dr. King then provides a greater reason for his presence: “I am here because injustice is here.” He compares the SCLC to 8th century prophets who carried the word of Jesus far away from their homes, and himself implicitly to Paul of Tarsus, who brought the gospel to “the far corners of the Greco-Roman world.” Dr. King is attempting to carry “the gospel of freedom” to areas far and wide (170).

He further argues that “all communities and states” are interrelated. As a man devoted to justice, he cannot ignore injustice simply because it happens outside of his hometown. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” since everyone feels the sting of injustice, even if indirectly. As a result, nobody in the United States should ever be considered an outsider anywhere else in the country (170).

Following this, Dr. King gently chides the clergymen, for criticizing the demonstrations without simultaneously criticizing “the conditions [of racial discrimination] that brought about the demonstrations.” Knowing that they would not suggest a “social analysis” that only studies effects and not causes, he suggests they must not realize the extent to which Birmingham’s “white power structure” has left the black community no option but to demonstrate (170-171).

Dr. King then describes in detail the process of organizing nonviolent action. These include investigating “whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (171).

He insists that all steps have been taken. Citing many facts of Birmingham’s singularly egregious institutionalized racism and segregation, he argues that the SCLC had little reason to doubt there was cause for demonstrations, especially after the city’s leaders “refused to engage in good-faith negotiation” (171).

He specifically describes an attempt in the previous September to meet with business leaders in Birmingham, and how several leaders of the SCLC agreed to cease demonstrations on the basis of promises that businesses across town would be integrated. However, these promises were never kept.

As a result, the SCLC planned to use “direct action,” meaning they would put themselves on the front lines of demonstrations to appeal to the local and national consciences. However, they first underwent the process of “self-purification,” holding workshops to ensure that they were prepared to proceed non-violently, to suffer arrest without allowing rage to consume them. After deciding they were capable of this approach, they chose Easter for the demonstrations, since it was a period of heavy shopping. The hope was that by targeting profits, they might facilitate more cooperation from business owners (171).

The SCLC plan was complicated when they realized that Birmingham’s mayoral election was soon happening. They decided to postpone demonstrations, to determine whether Eugene “Bull” Connor, a notoriously vicious racist, would win. He lost, but they decided to proceed.

He then anticipates that the clergymen might wonder whether continued negotiations would be a better tactic than “sit-ins, marches, and so forth.” Dr. King answers the rhetorical question by insisting that negotiation is the best tactic, and that “non-violent direct action” is designed explicitly to force negotiation. However, the means of such direct action is to create “crisis” and “tension” so that negotiations become necessary (172).

Acknowledging that words like “tension” and “crisis” are frightening to moderates, Dr. King nevertheless insists that he embraces such concepts, provided they are “constructive [and] nonviolent.” In fact, he believes that tension is necessary for growth. He alludes to Socrates, who believed there must a “tension in the mind” so that individuals could transcend superstition and embrace truth, and insists that men like himself must force external tension so that men can “rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (172).

Therefore, he absolutely agrees that “negotiation” and “dialogue” should be the end game, but believes that it will not happen without a “crisis-packed” scenario (172).


Throughout this first section, Dr. King’s tone remains consistently unemotional and logical. Considering the highly emotional nature of the content here, Dr. King’s restraint is admirable. In a fashion that evokes a legal complaint, Dr. King acknowledges the clergymen’s criticisms one at a time. He first notes the complaint that he is an outsider, then that he was too quick to action by encouraging demonstrations, and then that he is uninterested in negotiations. In fact, he often speaks directly in their voice, attempting to articulate their concerns and questions. Consider when he asks, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” This attempt at empathetic understanding, at acknowledging that their voices matter, is both a reflection of Dr. King’s theories on interconnectedness between people, and an effective way to argue a point without directly stating that point (172).

The basic legal structure – which will be discussed in more detail below – is to first stipulate certain facts, usually by acknowledging what is justifiable in the clergymen’s complaints, and then to illustrate the fallacy behind those criticisms based on the stipulations. In this way, the “Letter” serves to attack an ambiguous hypocrisy in the clergymen, without ever explicitly accusing them of anything. In fact, even in the portion of this initial section in which he does criticize the clergymen – noting that they have only attacked the effects of segregation, and not its causes – he goes out of his way to give them the benefit of the doubt, to assume that they must have been misled. “None of them would want to rest content with the “superficial kind of social analysis” that operates that way; he does not accuse, but rather implies their deficiencies in reasoning or moral character (171).

Immediately after justifying his ‘jurisdiction’ in Birmingham, Dr. King makes his first intense challenge to the clergymen, using a moral sentiment – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The implication is that geographical boundaries are superficial and silly compared to the geographies of justice, which are far more fluid. This is obviously not a challenge that a professed Christian man would wish to disagree with. By not mentioning it right away, Dr. King has forced his audience to confront it not as an angry assertion, but as a logical extension of his reasoning (170).

That is, we should not consider these two paragraphs purely as a logical argument – they contain without any doubt powerfully emotional, moral, and transcendent assertions. The “Letter” has already moved between its two most notable appeals – to logos (the mind, the intellect) and to pathos (emotion). That Dr. King can move between logos and pathos so fluidly speaks to his command of rhetoric. By restraining himself from making the “Letter” an angry tirade, these shifts into emotional address are made all the more powerful.

Interestingly enough, he does not delve into the theology of this assertion about injustice, but rather places it forward as a stipulation. His support for its validity is provided mostly through unimpeachable allusions. Dr. King’s lack of humility in comparing himself to Paul of Tarsus, and the SCLC to the first Christian missionaries, is easily forgiven when one realizes the implications of the argument. In effect, he is asking: How can these moral clergymen refuse to recognize the chance to practice their faith? How can they celebrate those early missionaries while now attacking a missionary who preaches an extension of such Christian justice? Without having to articulate these questions, which would naturally come off as a challenge or a suggestion of hypocrisy, Dr. King allows the allusions to pose the challenge. He leaves this first section having established the sanctity and righteousness of his cause as self-evident.

Another crucial aspect of this defense is the discussion on interrelatedness. The famous assertion - “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – implies within it one of Dr. King’s most important philosophies: that the white man is a victim of discrimination same as the black man is. Though Dr. King’s lifelong sentiments about the differences between races are complicated and dynamic, the “Letter” takes great pains to suggest that discrimination affects everyone. Again, this argument functions in the “Letter” less as a controversial argument and more as a factual stipulation, largely due to his controlled and almost apologetic tone.

Dr. King then makes his most direct criticism on the clergymen, in questioning why they do not show “concern for the conditions” of racism. As noted above, he is quick to excuse the clergymen, to assume they have been misled. His language implicitly distinguishes between them and the “white power structure,” suggesting that their morality is simply confused, whereas the power structure is actively facilitating segregation.

And yet the clergymen’s attack implies that there was some level of peace that existed between blacks and whites in Birmingham, a harmonious status quo that the demonstrators seek to upset. In turn, Dr. King implicitly but certainly denies that assumption. Later in the “Letter,” he will deliberately confront the clergymen for praising the “white power structure” but not the black protestors in turn, but he is already in this early portion refusing to admit that there is equilibrium. The protestors have been left no option (172).

His description of the process the SCLC undertook before beginning demonstrations is amongst the most defensive sections of the “Letter.” His description of the process is mechanical, almost dry, as he lists the four steps that the organization insists upon. Even the more controversial decisions – like the choice to begin demonstrations in the Easter season – are defended from a logical standpoint. It is clearly important to Dr. King that he not allow demonstrations to seem like expressions of ‘angry black men,’ but rather as events deliberately designed to achieve the justice that he has already stipulated his audience must know is desirable.

By first establishing this logical approach, Dr. King prepares his audience for the first challenging section of the “Letter”: his defense of tension. Impressively, he approaches the topic from a didactic, almost scholarly place, so as to broach it without evoking the fear it might cause for his audience. His first tactic towards this roundabout approach involves the allusion to Socrates.

In fact, the allusion to Socrates is an effective way to understand both his argument and the letter’s overall structure. Socratic dialogues are structured through questions that Socrates asks of another person. Through that person’s answers, Socrates illustrates the limitations in that person’s thinking. In other words, Socrates rarely if ever expresses a defined philosophy; instead, he merely forces a person to confront his own assumptions in order to bring that person closer to truth. While Dr. King certainly has a defined philosophy of justice, he structures the “Letter” around the criticism voiced by other people, and then uses undeniable truths (like ‘injustice is bad’) to illustrate the shortcomings of that thinking.

His argument is that intellectual growth happens only when one allows such tension to surface, and that he must similarly engender social tensions for greater change. Clearly, he knows that this section is what frightens and worries white society most of all, which is why he approaches it relatively late in the “Letter.” And yet his argument is almost unimpeachable, especially as he insists that the purpose of “direct action” is to spur negotiation. People must be forced to confront themselves. This argument is important to establish since it prefigures his more direct attack on “moderates” that comes later in the “Letter.”

Implicit in this argument is Dr. King’s view of people in general. First, it goes without saying that the core of Dr. King’s method was non-violent. For him, tension was about challenging, not threatening. Society must confront itself, but not harm itself; the goal was always constructive. This philosophy necessarily assumes that people are inherently good, or at least have the potential for such goodness. And yet the fact that “tension” and “crisis” are prerequisites to change also implies that we will not come to our better selves naturally. Instead, we must be forced to change ourselves. It is in this distinction that Dr. King’s view of humanity can be seen as less naïve than it initially appears. One must have tension and protests if negotiations are actually to happen. Without individual action, unless someone forces us to confront our limitations, we might not do so (172).

Finally, it is important to note that while this “Diplomat” portion of the “Letter” is indeed focused on logic and reasoning, Dr. King’s training in and natural inclinations towards preaching are nevertheless apparent. Frequently, he falls into soaring, emotional rhetoric even in the midst of otherwise legalistic arguments. One of many examples can be found in his discussion of initial negotiations with Birmingham business leaders, in which he says, “our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us” (171). The point here could simply be that Dr. King was accustomed to preaching, but it also indicates that even at its most straightforward, the stakes of Dr. King’s mission are hardly simple. He might argue as a lawyer more than as a preacher, but his lapses into emotional rhetoric remind us that he is fighting not for a legal victory, but for the future of justice everywhere, for the fate of mankind and America’s soul.