Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary and Analysis of "One of the basic points in your statement..." through "...I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience."


Dr. King then addresses another of the clergymen’s criticisms: that the SCLC action is “untimely.” He acknowledges their concern – that the SCLC did not wait until the new mayor, Albert Boutwell, had time to show his intentions regarding segregation – but he notes that despite being more “gentle” than “Bull” Connor, Boutwell is nevertheless a segregationist (172).

Further, he insists that “privileged groups” have rarely given up their “privileges voluntarily” throughout history. In other words, the oppressing group will not likely give up its privilege without pressure to do so. Individuals might change, he says, but groups tend to be less malleable (173).

He adds that these “privileged groups” have never thought direct action campaigning is “well timed.” Instead, those who do not suffer discrimination cry, “Wait,” which the black man has come to recognize means “Never.” In other words, those in power will always consider direct action for change to be ill-timed (173).

Dr. King insists that the black man has already waited “more than 340 years” for his “constitutional and God-given rights.” In the most impassioned passage yet in the “Letter,” he describes how Asia and Africa move towards independence while blacks in the United States continue to suffer under segregationists who insist they “Wait.”

In a litany of detailed abuses, Dr. King paints the black experience as one too lacking in dignity to suffer any more patience. He lists several demeaning and insulting experiences that black people suffer on a daily basis. Amongst these abuses is his experience explaining to his young daughter why she cannot go to an amusement park because of her skin color. Overall, these offenses lead the black man into a “degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’” For all these reasons, because the black man has been pushed “into the abyss of despair,” Dr. King hopes that the clergymen will excuse his and his brethren’s impatience (174).


This section of the “Letter” works mostly as a transition between what professor Jonathan Rieder calls the “Diplomat” portion and the “Prophet” portion of the text. While Dr. King maintains the same logical, largely unemotional tone here that he did in the letter’s first paragraph, he here reveals much more of the fire and passion that lies behind his mission. Though he maintains his restraint, it is matched now by an unabashedly emotional tone.

In terms of remaining the “Diplomat,” Dr. King uses many of the same approaches here as he did in the earlier portion. He continues to speak in the voice of the clergymen, attempting to articulate their arguments for them, as though to suggest that he is empathetic towards their concerns. One of the most pronounced examples concerns the argument that the SCLC should have waited until Albert Boutwell had taken power and had a chance to address segregation. Of course, as he has done since the beginning, he only introduces these arguments so he can patiently skewer them, but the empathetic approach continues to give the “Letter” an even-tempered feel that improves its effectiveness.

There are two philosophies underlying many of the arguments in this portion of the letter (and beyond). They are worth understanding.

First is the not-so-implicit suggestion that all men are interconnected. Dr. King introduced this concept in the first portion of the letter, but here expresses it in far more powerful terms. In the following portion, he explicitly states that white men suffer from segregation even as they are the powerful race, since they are given “a false sense of inferiority.” He posits “separation” as a “tragic” and “terrible” sin, suggesting that man is forever doomed if he does not embrace his connection to his brothers and sisters. He expounds on the importance of recognizing “sameness” rather than “difference” in a legal code (175). All of these ideas will be discussed in more detail below, but it is useful to recognize this as one of the letter’s most pervasive themes: we are all connected to one another, so “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (170).

The second philosophy underlying this portion of the “Letter” is tied to its more pronounced use of emotional appeal (or pathos). As mentioned above, Dr. King’s boundary between his more fiery diction and more logical approach breaks down in this portion. While this could indicate an inability to control tone, it also suggests a much more profound philosophy: the legal and moral worlds are not separate from one another. Legality and morality must intersect if mankind is to reach his higher self. For this reason, politicians must be cognizant of moral concerns, and moral leaders (like the clergymen to whom the letter is ostensibly addressed) must interfere in legal concerns. There can be no separation between the two if justice is the end game.

While Dr. King’s first argument here concerns the conflict between moderation (the voices that cry “Wait!”) and extremism (though he does not yet use that word), he first digresses into a discussion of the distinction between individuals and groups. Clearly, Dr. King has great faith in the individual’s ability to transcend his prejudices and hatreds. His entire mission is predicated on that belief, and the letter’s logical tone would be meaningless if he did not believe he could change hearts and minds.

And yet he makes certain to note that groups provide protection for individuals to remain removed from justice - “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals” (173). This is a direct attack on white society because it tells these clergymen that they are naïve to think that their personal goodwill – which he takes great pains to grant them – can have any effect on greater society. Dr. King’s mission and philosophies have a well-documented Marxist undercurrent, and while he was prudent enough throughout most of his career to avoid using such language, there is a Marxist suggestion here, that privilege protects privilege.

Any student of history would have trouble arguing this fact, and so Dr. King’s implicit argument is that individuals must be willing not only to work against the prevailing unjust ideologies, but also to take direct action to counteract that injustice. His allusion to Hitler’s Germany (which comes in the next section) strengthens the argument. As he suggests, it would not be enough to feel sympathetic towards the oppressed Jews; a just man would be responsible for “aiding and comforting” those victims (176). His implicit attack is that the clergymen, despite their sympathy for the black man in America, are refusing to perform their Christian duty by refusing to take action in support of that oppressed class. The group must be opposed if unjust, not embraced simply because it offers comfort or protection.

His discussion of the difference between Boutwell and “Bull” Connor further confronts the clergymen with a distinction they have missed. He admits that Boutwell seems gentler, but quickly insists that the difference is superficial. To argue that the protestors should have patiently allowed a segregationist to make laws simply because he is gentle is to be fooled by a façade. Dr. King suggests that Boutwell’s moderation is itself a guise for injustice, which in turn implies that others – like the clergymen – might be in fact hiding behind moderation, using it as an excuse not to confront the extremity of the current injustice.

In this portion is arguably the heart of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Without yet mentioning the word “extremism,” since that would evoke fear and anxiety amongst his white audience, Dr. King establishes the logical groundwork for justifying extremism. To justify it, he first distinguishes between it and moderation.

Moderation is mostly expressed here as a type of gradualism, the voice that cries “Wait!” Attempting to articulate his opponent’s viewpoint, Dr. King notes that black men are encouraged to let history take its course, to eschew violent and direct action with faith that better days will come.

Dr. King quickly quashes such an argument as naïve – “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” But this logical argument, which is grounded in a historical understanding, is not enough. Dr. King feels compelled to articulate the moral aspect of this question, which he does in the first (and arguably most) emotional portion of the letter, his litany of abuses that blacks have suffered. It is a majestic piece of writing (or of preaching transposed to letter form) and worth reading aloud to understand its reliance of rhythm and diction (173).

What the litany introduces most explicitly is the letter’s distinction between the use of logos (appeal to logic) and pathos (appeal to emotion). The examples he lists are powerful and unimpeachably tragic, and veer from generalization (“when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society”) to the personal (his example of his daughter, to whom he had to explain the pernicious truth of discrimination) (173-174).

In fact, the entire litany has a personal edge missing not only from most of the “Letter,” but also from Dr. King’s general style. For his much-venerated ability to connect with people, Dr. King was a private person, who did not often invite his congregation or followers into his private life and thoughts. This long litany of abuses is a strong exception.

And yet the litany should be understood as pathos, as an appeal, rather than an uncontrolled burst of emotion; Dr. King is writing for effect. He wants to confront these generally good men (the clergymen and by extension, white moderates) with the truth, to demonstrate that they ask the black man to “wait” while suffering terrible indignities. By inviting them into his private life, he hopes they will perhaps consider an empathy that has otherwise escaped them - the same empathy he is extended them.

Central to the argument is the theme of impatience, which has both legal and moral ramifications. Impatience was crucial to Dr. King’s mission, and in fact, many of his supporters and critics both often worried he was not impatient enough. As he illustrates in the letter, privilege will preach gradualism for its own protection, even if many individuals within that group are sympathetic to the cause. At the time of his incarceration in Birmingham, Dr. King was criticized for his impatience by the Kennedys (President John F. and Attorney General Robert), by national publications like the New York Times, and certainly by the Southern cities into which he led demonstrations. When he explains that he must “dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored”, he shows an uncanny understanding of what the moderates need in order to feel empathy (172). They must be shown pictures of terrible atrocities (as happened in Montgomery and would soon happen in Birmingham), or they will continue to stress patience and moderation, ignoring the moral aspect of the question in favor of law and order.

Dr. King’s argument is that the moral and legal aspects are interrelated. The law has the power to end segregation, but that will only happen when its moral necessity is accepted as self-evident. And in the meanwhile, those who cry “Wait” are liars; they ignore the historical facts of segregation and injustice, continuing to insist that better days will come through patience.