Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary and Analysis of “I must make two honest confessions….” through “…now this approach is being termed extremist.”


Dr. King makes “two honest confessions.” He first confesses that he has been “disappointed with the white moderate,” who he believes has been the largest obstacle to integration and black freedom. By preaching patience and valuing “order” over “justice,” moderates have ensured the continuation of segregation. He believes this moderation is worse that outright “ill will” (176-177). He is disappointed that moderates do not realize that the black man does not cause tension, but rather reveals society’s underlying tension by taking direct action against injustice. The protestors only bring this tension and injustice to the surface.

He cites the clergymen's statement, which argues that the actions of the SCLC “precipitate violence.” However, he likens this attack to blaming “a robbed man” because he had money to steal, or “condemning Jesus” because his faith angered others. In other words, the robber or villain should always be punished, not the victim for having given the villain something to attack (177).

He also attacks moderates, more directly than he had before, for their cries of patience. Moderates, he claims, believe that, as it took Christianity 2,000 years to flourish, so will black equality be realized with time. However, Dr. King calls this a “tragic misconception of time,” arguing that “time itself is neutral” and needs men of action in order to force change. Conversely, “people of ill will” have used time to their advantage, convincing moderates that patience is the right course in the case of segregation. Dr. King warns that moderates will one day repent having settled with “silence” instead of taking action against injustice. Therefore, Dr. King argues that good men must take action in the current day, and no longer wait (178).

He again cites the clergymen's statement, which calls the SCLC action “extreme.” He considers how he stands in the middle of “two opposing forces” in the movement for black equality, and defines both sides. On one side is “complacency” - the black people who have been demeaned for so long that they no longer hope for anything better, or those “few middle-class Negroes” who profit superficially and hence fear change that could threaten their comfort. On the other side are black people full of “bitterness and hatred,” people like Elijah Muhammad and his Muslim movement, which more or less supports violence. These people have “lost faith in America” and consider the white man to be a “devil” (178).

Dr. King insists that he tries to “stand between” these two sides, to encourage “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” He proudly believes he has been successful in this aim, and that the South has experienced less bloodshed because of it. Further, he not-so-implicitly warns that more blacks would be attracted to violent movements if Dr. King and the SCLC were to step down as the clergymen wish them to (178).

Having defined extremism, Dr. King insists that “oppressed people” will eventually pursue their freedom, as is happening throughout the world. The “Negro community” also feels this “vital urge” and is attempting to fulfill it through marches, pilgrimages, and prayers. If these repressed urges are not allowed expression, they will certainly turn to violence. By calling this expression “extremist,” moderates are showing a lack of distinction between violence and non-violence (179).


This portion of the “Letter” begins roughly halfway through the text, and opens what professor Jonathan Rieder refers to as the “Prophet” section. In his analysis, Dr. King makes far fewer overtures to equanimity in the second half of the letter, and becomes much more willing to directly challenge his audience. His tone is immediately more confrontational, more direct. He uses the verb “must” frequently, as though to insist rather than persuade.

Mostly, this shift involves a much more direct embrace of the moral high ground. But the subject matter of this portion is also quite distinct. It is not that he has lost his restraint so much as that he is willing to more directly engage in pathos, and to insist on certain truths without qualifications. Where he previously spoke of concrete legal and social concerns, Dr. King’s subject here is far more abstract and broad. In particular, he focuses on history, the passage of time, and extremism.

What is most pronounced in this section is Dr. King’s naming of the white moderate as his primary antagonist. In the discussions that comprise this portion of the “Letter,” it becomes quite clear that Dr. King is no longer pretending that the clergymen are his entire audience. As his net grows bigger and his disappointments greater, it becomes undeniable that he is writing for a world larger than that of Birmingham.

What Dr. King essentially argues is that people who see injustice and do nothing are more sinful than those who commit the injustice. This is an extension of what he has been arguing throughout the entire letter. Time and again, he has suggested that the clergymen (and his white audience by extension) have failed to truly consider the nature of black protestors, especially in contrast to other, more vicious forces. Here, he goes so far as to say that such ignorance is outright sin.

In the long passage that relies on the repetition of “I had hoped,” he offers many self-evident arguments in order to ironically accuse his attackers. For instance, he writes, “I had hoped that the white moderates would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” In this case, by stating the obvious point and implying that moderates act as though this was not true, he accuses them of hypocrisy at best, and injustice at worst (177).

Further, he chides them for, in effect, victim-blaming. One of the letter’s most powerful passages (which begins “In your statement you assert that our actions...”) suggests that these clergymen argue in such a way that also blames Jesus for his crucifixion and Socrates for his death. The assertion that closes that paragraph – “Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber” – is hard to disagree with. And yet what Dr. King has done is illustrate how the moderate claim that blacks should “wait” essentially contradicts this sentiment (177).

His philosophy on time is also intriguing. By saying that time is “neutral,” he is insisting that individuals must take action if they are to enact change. He refuses to accept the possibility of “inevitability,” but instead insists that people must not be passive. His use of “Repent!” gives the “Letter” a more direct and punishing tone, no longer asking his readers to consider his points, but to face them as truth (178).

While these arguments are essentially and powerfully moral, they also serve a legal and rhetorical purpose. In effect, he is setting up a syllogism, a logical construction that argues that if we accept two facts as true, then the conclusion of those facts must also be true. Here, he stipulates that victims should be protected, and that change requires action. The logical extension of this syllogism is that anyone who wants to protect victims must take action in order to do so.

What makes this rhetorical point important is that Dr. King is taking pains, even in his most sustained emotional pleas yet, to define and establish the nature of extremism. The word ‘extremism’ would have been extremely troubling to many at this time, not only because of the social changes that Civil Rights movements were requiring, but also because there were other national leaders – like Elijah Muhammad and his most famous disciple, Malcolm X – who took pride in frightening white listeners.

Dr. King does not shy away from this threat. By naming Elijah Muhammad directly and by warning that those who are discouraged from nonviolent action will turn eventually to violent action, he is admitting the human capacity for violence, and the eventual channeling of frustrations into darker modes of expression. And yet by framing it this way, the implicit point is that the moderates have the control, the ability to either facilitate nonviolent action by supporting its push for justice, or of encouraging violent action by continuing to remain silent and moderate. In a sense, his approach is an indirect blackmail – ‘if you don’t support me, worse things are coming’.

All in all, he has established the possibility that extremism is tied into action, which is necessary to fight injustice. That being established, Dr. King can now continue to declare himself not only an extremist, but a proud one.