Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary and Analysis of “Before closing…” through the end


Dr. King notes that he would like to make one final answer to the clergymen’s complaint. He notes that they had “warmly commended” the Birmingham police in their statement, for having kept “order” and for “preventing violence” (184).

First, Dr. King implies the clergymen are ignorant of what actually happened. He notes how the police sicced dogs on nonviolent protestors, how they have mistreated their prisoners, how they have pushed and cursed old women and young girls, and other atrocities.

He admits that the police have publicly exercised some “discipline” in arresting SCLC protestors. And yet he insists that this “discipline” was used in the service of “the evil system of segregation.” He insists that a discerning man should distinguish between means and ends. Even if the police used admirable, non-violent means, they did so for the sake of vicious, unjust ends. Dr. King believes this is among the worst offenses (184).

Next, Dr. King confesses his disappointment that the clergymen did not commend “the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators” who had shown courage, discipline, and non-violence in their actions. He believes that the South will one day “recognize its real heroes,” who will be not only movement figureheads like James Meredith and Rosa Parks, but also the unnamed people who stood up to injustice to demanded personal dignity. He believes that these people are fighting not only for integration, but also for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” They are fighting to uncover the country’s true promise (185).

Dr. King apologizes for the length of his letter, which he insists would have been shorter had he been in greater comfort than the Birmingham jail allows.

He also apologizes in advance in case he has said anything that “overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience,” insisting that he only errs from wanting to achieve the true depths of brotherhood. He hopes he can meet the clergymen in person soon enough, and hopes they join him in wishing that better times for individuals and the nation will soon come.

He signs the letter “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood” (185).


Ending the “Letter” with his celebration of the black man’s perseverance might have made a more fitting and appropriate ending, but Dr. King continues into this final argument, which he acknowledges almost as a post-script: “one other point…before closing” (184). And yet the point does not detract tonally from the second half of the “Letter,” particularly because Dr. King is so confrontational towards those who would celebrate the Birmingham police while overlooking the courage of the protestors. One could certainly read in his criticism the use of the Birmingham police as a symbol for ‘law and order’ in general. This would conform to the letter’s overall attack on moderation, on choosing comfort and order over justice.

Yet either way, the language he uses here is meant to shame his white moderate audience. He is ever deferential, suggesting in the opening of this portion that perhaps the clergymen’s commendation would have been different “if [they] had seen” the many atrocities he details. The conditional tense allows them to dodge the complaint, to pretend that perhaps they did not know the extent of the violence being practiced towards the protestors (184). Their absence does not absolve their understanding.

And yet this deference is counteracted by the facts, which the clergymen could not have been unaware of. Alabama’s governor at the time, George Wallace, was a pronounced and vicious racist and segregationist, and his outspoken willingness to use violence towards promoting his cause was no secret. So as Dr. King continues to use the preacherly repetition of phrases – “I wish,” “if you had seen” – he is making it clear that these men have not been misled or confused; they have been wrong. They have supported evil instead of celebrating the cause of justice (184).

Further, they have supported evil for what he deems superficial reasons. He acknowledges that the police showed no violence in public, but then distinguishes between the means and ends of a situation. Again, he is showing his didactic ability even in the midst of fiery confrontation, his ability to distinguish terms and identify the distinction between justice and injustice. Aligning his cause not only with “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “the Constitution and Declaration of Independence,” Dr. King accuses the clergy (and by extension, the white moderates) of falling short in both secular and moral terms. Again, the legal and moral ramifications are not separated, but in fact ought to be reflections of one another (184-185).

His attack here is similar to one he has made several times: these men cannot tell the difference between the real heroes and the true villains. By juxtaposing those who will eventually be deemed the “real heroes” of the South with the police who protect the “evil system of segregation, he does not pose a question to the clergy (i.e. which do you support?), but rather accuses of them of blindness and ignorance (i.e. how could you support evil?).

The implied answer to this latter question is, of course, because they prize moderation – reflected here in ‘law and order’ – over justice.

The final paragraphs of the passage end with another burst of false deference that ultimately celebrates the power of the just individual to change society. In many ways, Dr. King’s apologies feel strangely placed, as he seemingly retreats from the confrontation of the previous paragraphs. And yet in apologizing for having potentially gone too far, he turns the judgment not to the men he ostensibly apologizes to, but instead to God. In effect, he does not care whether they forgive him; they have lost their right to judge whether his cause is just.

Instead, he ends with a rather ministerial optimism, a “hope…[that] the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over this great nation.” What is contained in the language of the closing, however is that such a future is not certain. As he makes clear earlier in the “Letter,” there is no inevitability of justice; individuals must force it into life. Having only paragraphs before celebrated the “real heroes” of the South, a number of which includes not only famous Civil Rights icons like James Meredith but also nameless people who have stood up for justice, he reinforces that these “radiant stars” will come to pass not through good will or moderation, but through the tireless efforts of those who will fight for it (185).

And it is telling that he does not end the “Letter” by begging the clergymen for anything but their “hope.” For he does not need them (or, if he did, he would not end the "Letter" by acknowledging it). He and his brethren are on their way, devoted to their cause. What the clergy – and the country at large – must now decide is whether they will join the train towards “Peace and Brotherhood” or be left behind (185).