Letter from Birmingham Jail: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Background
  • 1:36 The Nine Criticisms
  • 9:18 Analysis
  • 10:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lincoln Davis
Martin Luther King, Jr. takes on and beats nine tough criticisms in his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.' Discover the hidden structure and radical rhetorical power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most widely-read text.

Background on 'Letter From Birmingham Jail'

'Letter from Birmingham Jail' is, in fact, a letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a solitary confinement cell in Birmingham, Alabama. Some portions of the letter were written and gradually smuggled out by King's lawyer on scraps of paper including, by some reports, rough jailhouse toilet paper. Violent racist terror against African Americans was so bad in Birmingham in the summer of 1963 that the city was being referred to by some locals as Bombingham.

King had been arrested while participating in a peaceful anti-segregation march on the grounds that he did not have a parade permit. Segregation laws and policies were part of the Jim Crow system of separate schools, restaurants, bathrooms, etc. for blacks and whites that existed far beyond the era of slavery, especially in the American South.

Several local religious figures Dr. King had counted on for support simultaneously published a letter entitled A Call for Unity, which was critical of King and his supporters. King's letter, in turn, identifies and responds to each of the nine specific criticisms that he understands are being made by these men, specifically, and by the white church and its leadership, more generally. King responds to each of these nine charges to create the structure of his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.'

The Nine Criticisms

Criticism #1: It is not King's place as an 'outsider' to interfere with the City of Birmingham.

King gives three reasons why it is appropriate for him to be active in working for civil rights in Birmingham even though he doesn't claim permanent residence there.

a) He is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is a national organization whose Alabama chapter invited him.

b) He compares himself to the apostle Paul, who was also called to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own place of birth.

c) King points out that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Criticism #2: It's inappropriate for King to get his point across through public demonstrations.

King counters that the white power structure of Birmingham left no other alternative because of the unremitting violence, continued racist practices of local merchants, and the unwillingness of the political leaders to negotiate.

King also describes how he and his organization acted responsibly by following the 'four basic steps' that include and end with non-violent direct action. The other three are:

  • Fact gathering: King's group had reviewed and confirmed all of the facts listed above.
  • Negotiation: Talks with both politicians and business leaders.
  • Self-purification: Inner reflection and workshops on non-violence.

Criticism #3: Negotiation is a better path than direct action.

King also makes a case for the value of direct action in general. King explains that his group meant to dramatize racism and make sure that the community at large was forced to confront the issue by getting up in everyone's faces, so to speak. They sought to establish a non-violent, creative tension.

Criticism #4: The Negro community should be more patient and wait for society to move gradually toward civil rights.

King points out that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. This is the section of the 'Letter' with so many often-quoted examples of ways in which African Americans were suffering from racist attitudes and policies and 'why we find it difficult to wait.' He provides many jarring illustrations to explain 'our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.'

Criticism #5: Breaking laws.

After acknowledging this legitimate concern, King quickly launches into several paragraphs in defense of lawbreaking as a moral act, based on the concept that there are just laws and there are unjust laws. King's litmus test for that difference is whether a law 'uplifts' or 'degrades human personality.' He weighs the difference between the violation of a law that requires a parade permit and the violation of constitutional rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Perhaps his most powerful point in this section of the 'Letter' is that no law can be considered democratically structured when a minority has no part in enacting or creating the law due to discriminatory voting rights and practices.

Criticism #6: Confronting society with demands for social justice, no matter how peaceful the method, is provoking violence to occur.

In answer to criticisms 6, 7 and 8, King adds to the structure of his letters two 'confessions.' They are both confessions of profound 'disappointment.' Each is directed toward hypocrisy and cowardice, and each has to do with specific groups of Americans whom he calls out by political stance and, quite explicitly, by race. There are two groups of whites and two groups of blacks in these comments.

The first group of whites he takes to task are those who call themselves 'moderate.' It is in relation to this group that he begins to discuss the irony he sees in the charge of peaceful action that 'precipitates violence.' He warns that his contemporaries will have to repent, not only from the 'actions of the bad people,' but also from 'the appalling silence of the good people.'

Criticism #7: Direct political action, such as the demonstrations in Birmingham, are acts of extremism.

At this point in the 'Letter,' King turns his critical eye toward 'two opposing forces in the Negro community': the 'complacent' and the 'radical'. He divides the complacent into two groups: those who have been beaten down by poverty and racism and are too jaded to stand up for themselves, and others who correspond to the 'white moderate,' the 'few Negroes in the middle class.'

Reverend King then warns the reader that the flip side of the middle-class black Americans, the members of the black nationalist and Muslim movements, are the real extremists. By describing these groups' 'bitterness and hatred' as well as their own stated racism against whites, King has now placed himself in the middle, not the extreme, of black America.

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