Letter From Birmingham Jail

Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary and Analysis of "You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws..." to "...I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws."


Dr. King switches gears quickly, noting that the clergymen are anxious over the black man’s “willingness to break laws.” He admits that his intention seems paradoxical, since he urges people to follow Brown v. Board of Education (“the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation”) while he is apparently willing to break laws (174).

And yet he insists that this is not a paradox, but rather an acknowledgement of the distinction between “just and unjust” laws (174). He insists that everyone has a “legal” and “moral responsibility” to follow just laws, but that one equally “has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (174). He cites St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to justify this latter claim.

He provides definitions to distinguish between just and unjust laws. A just law conforms to the “moral law or the law of God,” while an unjust law is “out of harmony with the moral law.” He goes further to define a just law as one which “uplifts human personality,” while an unjust law “degrades human personality.” He insists that unjust laws punish not only the segregated (since he is a victim of persecution) but also the segregator (since he is given a “false sense of inferiority”). Citing Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Dr. King notes that segregation turns people to “things,” and hence degrades all personality (175).

Citing Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, Dr. King takes the argument further to suggest that if “sin is separation,” then segregation is a terrible sin since it separates men from one another. Therefore, he does not accept that it is hypocritical to urge men to break unjust laws, especially if they are morally wrong - as segregation is (175).

Dr. King then provides a “concrete example” of the distinction between the types of laws. When a majority forces a minority to follow a law that does not apply to itself, then it is acting unjustly. It is legalizing the “difference” between people. However, if a majority is willing to follow the law itself, then the law can be considered just. It is reinforcing “sameness” between people (175).

To be even more specific, Dr. King describes how Alabama’s laws do not truly allow black citizens the democratic possibility of voting on segregation. The state’s “devious methods” keep black men from voting, even in counties where blacks comprise a majority of the population. Dr. King finds this a clear mark of an unjust law (175).

He also states that a law can sometimes be just, while its “application” is unjust. As an example, he acknowledges that he is now in jail for “parading without a permit” - a fair law, but one that becomes unfair when it is used as a pretense for defending segregation, as happened in this case (175).

Dr. King repeats that he does not endorse unconsidered flaunting of the law, since that would lead to “anarchy.” Instead, he is willing to serve jail time, proving that he breaks an unjust law “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” The fact that he is willing to suffer for his belief that segregation is unjust shows that he has the greatest respect for the law, and for its potential (176).

To provide a history of the civil disobedience he practices, he alludes to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, and to early Christians who were willing to die rather than follow Roman laws they found unjust. He also mentions Socrates, whom the Athenians killed for his civil disobedience, and the Boston Tea Party.

To sum up his point, Dr. King reminds the clergymen that the Nazi program in Germany was “legal,” while freedom fighters often commit “illegal action.” He argues that he would have broken Hitler’s law and given aid to a Jew had he lived there at that time, and suggests he is doing the same thing here and now (176).


With this introduction of the legal question, Dr. King launches into one of the letter’s richest philosophical areas, its discussion of just and unjust laws. What he implies in this discussion is the connection between the individual and the group. His definition of what distinguishes just and unjust laws is clear enough – the former defends a man’s dignity and applies to everyone, while the latter demeans a man and applies only certain classes of people.

But what is intriguing about his insistence that unjust laws must be broken is that it puts the onus on each individual to follow his or her conscience. In other words, despite his measured and legalistic tone in this section, Dr. King is advocating that each individual must be not only subservient to the law, but in dialogue with it. He must consider the law as an expression of the group, and be willing to confront that law if he deems it unjust. The individual, and not the law, is supreme, since the former gives the latter its power.

In the previous portion, Dr. King introduced the idea that laws must reflect moral concerns. Here, he makes that point explicitly. His discussion of “sameness” and “difference” suggests unequivocally that law is an expression of morality. If “separation” is a sin and law encourages it, then the law is not only unjust, but also sinful. He also makes a variety of legal distinctions that speak to the quality of his legal mind. He distinguishes between actual democracy and a system that keeps blacks from voting; he distinguishes between the letter of a law and the way it is applied; he distinguishes most of all between just and unjust laws (175).

The attack here on the clergymen could not be clearer: they call themselves moral leaders, and yet they cannot tell the difference between justice and injustice. In criticizing Dr. King for breaking the law without considering the distinction, they are failing as moral leaders and as moral men. What the Nazi example drives home is that the law can be a crutch, a support system to protect the privilege of the majority. Yet again, each individual must work to fight injustice - within and outside of themselves. And those who purport to be moral leaders – like the clergymen – ought to show a special sensitivity to these concerns.

The philosophy of civil disobedience is central to Dr. King’s philosophy. He had long been an admirer of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” and of Mahatma Gandhi’s manifestation of those philosophies. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he provides a measured explanation and defense of the philosophy. Knowing that any support for breaking the law has the potential to frighten his audience, he uses a legalistic tone in this section.

There are two primary methods he uses to defend civil disobedience. First is to distinguish civil disobedience from “anarchy.” He argues that he actually shows “the highest respect for the law” because he is willing to serve the penalty for breaking it. He does not break the law from a duty to himself and his ego, but from his duty to his fellow man. If all men are connected, if injustice anywhere hurts everyone, then he feels compelled to not only break an unjust law but to suffer the penalty of that unjust law in order to dramatize and illustrate its pernicious effect. As he writes this letter from incarceration, it is a difficult argument to counter (176).

Secondly, Dr. King employs a large number of historical examples to defend his use of civil disobedience. These range from the secular to the deeply religious. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are figures mentioned in the Biblical book of Daniel; Socrates is the archetype of human wisdom; the early Christians are heroes to anyone of that faith; and the Boston Tea Party is one of America’s first stabs at declaring independence from Britain. By providing unimpeachable examples, he challenges the clergymen to attack him for practicing his civil disobedience. Yet again, this is also an implicit attack on the clergymen for their apparent simplicity: they cannot tell the difference between civil disobedience and anarchy.

Finally, it is worth considering how Dr. King’s many allusions work to underline his message of togetherness. One could certainly criticize him for showing off his academic background, but the myriad traditions he draws from – St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas from Christian philosophy, Martin Buber from Jewish theology, the Boston Tea Party from American history, and more – reinforce the argument that all men are connected. When considered together, traditions inform universal truth.