Maybe it was all the preachin'. Maybe it was all the schoolin'. Whatever it was, Dr. King knew how to rhetoric the you-know-what out of speeches. There's a little bit of everything in "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Dr. King makes an appeal to his readers' hearts and heads while alluding to the moral authority of the Christian tradition, American ideals, and the collective suffering of the African American community.
Let's check out each one more closely.
Aside from introducing himself as the president of the SCLC, Dr. King doesn't use ethos explicitly. He doesn't claim to be the foremost authority on Jesus or the greatest political strategist of all time, for instance. But his ethical standing is implied by the way he frames his argument and stakes his claim on a moral truth higher than local laws and ordinances. He out-Christians his Christian critics. He takes America's highest cultural ideals seriously.
He also references a dozen historical heavyweights, from Abraham Lincoln (24), to Paul of Tarsus (3, 24), to Socrates (9, 17, 21), to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (17) (they don't make names like they used to), arguing that he and his followers are in this lineage of freedom fighters, countercultural visionaries, and righteous sufferers of persecution. Talk about the ethical high ground.
He also acknowledges the sincerity and status of the clergymen who wrote the letter he's responding to, respecting their credibility as men of good will who are all knowledgeable about Bible teachings.
Although many of Dr. King's other speeches and works were specifically anchored on appeals to emotion and inspiration, the major moments of pathos in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" come in the parts about the suffering of the African American community. In order for MLK's argument to make sense, you have to understand why the situation is unjust. So he gives a vivid picture of what Black Americans have to go through in the segregated South.
…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?" (12)
This bit really gets to the heart of any parent—or anyone who loves children, really. By giving this kind of example, Dr. King is allowing white people a highly relatable glimpse into the pain of the Black community.
Likewise, he goes on to offer a glimpse into the way the criminal justice system treated African Americans:
I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of N****es here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old N**** women and young N**** girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old N**** men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. (34)
Nowadays, because cellphone cameras are everywhere and social media is so popular and accessible, a lot of police misconduct has come to the public's attention. Back in the 1960s, the only recourse victims of police brutality had was to get their accounts published in the newspaper or tell someone important. Dr. King had to use his platform to set the record straight. He might have been hoping that whites would read his accounts and imagine if the word "N****" had been left out. It could have been their mothers, daughters, and grandfathers.
Even though he uses a lot of what we might call "painful pathos," there are also the signature rhetorical flourishes Dr. King was famous for, reminding us of the beautiful possibilities for America's future. For example:
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny (34).
This passage is as much directed at his followers and fellow-travelers as it is to whites who are on the fence or unaware of what was going on. He has to temper the ugliness of the situation with at least a few moments of unabashed righteousness and monumental calls to hope.
He closes the letter on this kind of inspirational note, showing again that the preacher might leave the pulpit, but the pulpit doesn't leave the preacher…or something like that. He couldn't ever resist a majestic metaphor or two.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. (39)
You can almost see those stars now…scintillating…
When it comes right down to it, this text makes a seriously devastating logical argument. It deals with the facts of the situation in a way his critics fail to do. It details the local political situation and the ramifications of the recent elections. It explains in detail why non-violent disobedience is the ideal way to proceed. It refutes each element of the argument put forward by the eight white clergymen, one by one.
One of Dr. King's basic arguments in the "Letter" is that just laws should be followed, and unjust laws should be openly and deliberately disobeyed. But in order to win people over to this simple idea, he needs to do more than engage his readers' emotions. So he writes almost like a lawyer for a stretch, defining just and unjust laws from a couple different angles.
Take this paragraph, for example:
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent N****es from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though N****es constitute a majority of the population, not a single N**** is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? (14)
Hard to refute, right? This is a very precise definition of just vs. unjust laws, and in case it went over anyone's head, it's underscored by the obvious point about Black Americans being denied the vote. Even if a reader didn't quite get the point he's making here about "sameness" and "difference made legal," they surely understood the point about democracy.
Even though Dr. King is best remembered for his sonorous voice, towering metaphors, and rousing emotional appeals, inside every speech, sermon, and letter of his is a thoughtful, logical argument.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is kind of like an essay, a pamphlet, and a manifesto rolled into one. It has a clear message and rhetorical goal (essay), it's aiming to garner support and political action from its readers (pamphlet), and it serves as a primer for those new to the idea of non-violent civil disobedience in particular and the Civil Rights Movement in general (manifesto).
Nonetheless, it's a direct response to a letter-to-the-editor from eight Alabama clergymen. It mostly confines itself to the specific subjects brought up and alluded to by that original letter, and directly addresses the clergymen with a Christian vocabulary and Biblical allusions. It's an open letter, kind of like Paul's epistles in the Bible.
Dr. King begins by explaining that he's responding to the eight clergymen because he believes them to be "men of genuine good will" with "criticisms […] sincerely set forth." (1) Because they criticized him and the SCLC for coming from "outside" Birmingham, he justifies his presence, capping his argument off with one of his most memorable quotes: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…" (4)
Dr. King segues (no, they didn't have Segways back then) into a basic overview of the process and philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. He explains some of the behind-the-scenes decision-making to debunk the idea that the demonstrators were trying to cause chaos with no regard to the consequences. And he explains why bringing underlying social tension to the surface is how justice is eventually won.
Then Dr. King turns to the question of why all this hubbub has to happen now. He gives a brief historical context to the Black struggle, describing how Black Americans have always been told to wait for justice to come to them, and how intolerable the situation really is. He argues that if white people understood the problems and oppression facing the Black community, they'd be fully supportive.
This section really gets to the core of Dr. King's philosophy. While his opponents call for law and order, he's trying to call attention to unjust, discriminatory laws that have no business existing in America. He makes a very logical set of distinctions between just and unjust laws, reminding the reader that evil has often been done legally, most notably in Nazi Germany, and that good has come of people conscientiously breaking laws and accepting the penalties.
Dr. King expresses his disappointment with white people who claim to be in favor of desegregation but don't…walk the walk. He explains that justice doesn't come automatically over time, and that every advance made toward a better world has come from the active efforts of good people. He defends himself as an extremist for love in the tradition of Jesus.
Dr. King says that the Civil Rights Movement was hoping for support from white churches and Christian organizations in the South, but that support hasn't appeared. Yet he spends a good deal of this section praising the actions of many white individuals who have participated in and supported the demonstrations. He praises the clergymen he's responding to. He hopes that the church as a whole will move toward justice so it doesn't become a husk of its former self.
In this brief section, Dr. King gets super inspirational, saying how sure he is that the Civil Rights Movement will prevail. Black people come from a history of slavery, and if they could survive that, they'll survive Jim Crow. Because the founding ideas of America and Christianity are on their side, Dr. King knows that they're going to win the struggle.
The eight white clergymen had commended the Birmingham Police for enforcing law and order and such, so Dr. King had to set the record straight. He describes the actual conduct of police officers at the demonstrations and in the jails. He wonders why the police are being praised and not the protestors. He doubles down on his claim that the real heroes will eventually get the respect they deserve.
Dr. King decides to wrap it up and is very polite and proper about it. He hopes his letter is well understood and received, and that he and the clergymen can meet soon. He ends on a typical poetic flourish, looking forward to the day when America will be free of racial conflict.
Most of Dr. King's speeches, interviews, and writings are both righteous and measured, and "Letter from Birmingham Jail" epitomizes that kind of tone. It's righteous, not only in the sense of "righteous, bro," but also because every point he makes and every word he chooses is backed by a religious, spiritual, and moral understanding of what is right. For example, he writes:
I wish you had commended the N**** sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. (36)
Courage, willingness to suffer for a cause, and discipline in the face of chaos are universally admired character traits typically associated with heroes. And there's nobody more righteous than a hero.
And yet, for all its righteousness, Dr. King's language is always measured. Sitting in jail, probably shaking his head in frustrated disbelief at the clergymen's letter, he doesn't ever fly off into vitriolic or hateful language, and he never rants. He has harsh words for racists, the police, and obstructionist government, but those moments come in the context of a well-reasoned argument and a lot of conciliatory language. For instance, after laying down the gauntlet, Dr. King writes:
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. (38)
By ending his letter with this disclaimer, Dr. King is unleashing his inner diplomat. He's already written about patience and waiting, and yet apologizes in advance if his words are taken for "unreasonable impatience." And then in the next breath he goes the other way, apologizing in advance (to God, no less) if his words are too measured. We're getting pretty meta here, but it seems like Dr. King is being measured about being measured.
So, yeah. Righteously measured, bro.
Saying that Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspirational is like saying that water is wet.
Dr. King himself was inspired by his "Dream" for a better America, by his religious vision for a new world, and by the many thousands of supporters who were ordinary people coming out for an extraordinary cause. He was, after all, a preacher, and preachers are largely measured by their ability to inspire. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" isn't just a criticism of complacent moderates. It's a call to action addressed to everybody who can hear the message.
For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. (34)
If there's anything more inspirational than rising out of slavery to claim freedom while backed by the "sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God," we'd love to hear about it. This is the kind of line that would have gotten his congregation out of the pews yelling, "Preach!"
"Incisive" means clear-thinking, accurate, or penetrating to the core of the issue. This was Dr. King's job, and he was good at it. He dismantled the arguments of the people yelling for "law and order," the people calling for "patience," and the people accusing the activists of being "extremists" with ease. As Dr. King points out, all of these arguments ignored the whole cause of the problems in the first place:
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. (20)
In one sentence, Dr. King succinctly rebuts the pretty flimsy argument that the protestors were causing trouble. In three sentences, he dismantles it.
Finally, the poetry of Dr. King's writing and speaking almost goes without saying. If we were going to quote for you all the poetic language in the text, we'd be quoting the whole text. So, let's just pick something:
Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary N**** men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest? (30)
Unless they're eating a super melty ice cream cone, it's never good when someone's lips are dripping. The biggest associations are probably drool and blood. Dr. King has Governor Barnett's lips drip with "interposition and nullification," which is likely the most poetic treatment those two words will ever get.
There's also that strong rhyme between "lips" and "dripped" and the alliterative metaphor of "dark dungeons of complacency." And then there's the rhythm. Try reading that first sentence out loud to hear and feel it. Saying "nullification" has never been so satisfying.
It was published in The Atlantic as "The N**** is Your Brother," published in some places as "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" or "Letter From Birmingham City Jail," and sometimes known as "that famous letter MLK wrote that one time." But "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is the title that seems to have stuck the most, so that's the one we're using.
These slight variations are probably due to the irregular publishing history of the text and the several versions that were released over the years. It was sometimes published in full, sometimes in abbreviated form. Dr. King even published a "polished" version in his book, Why We Can't Wait, in 1964 (source).
P.S. Dr. King actually wrote the letter from inside the Birmingham Jail. He loves metaphors, but this ain't one. It's an even more appropriate title because Dr. King was intentionally breaking racist laws to call attention to them, fully expecting to be thrown into jail.
Right off the bat, Dr. King lets us know he's in jail at the moment. He says that, while he doesn't usually answer criticism, he's making an exception in this case because his interlocutors are "men of genuine good will" (1).
These words could be taken in a couple of different ways:
(1) As flattering to the eight white clergymen—that Dr. King would take their criticisms seriously enough to want to answer them directly.
(2) As a subtle dig at them for having made an argument bunk enough to necessitate a complete and thorough debunking and deconstruction, MLK style.
We kinda like the second one.
The last few paragraphs of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" show MLK being humble and conciliatory.
Like ya do, Dr. King.
He hits all the right notes: diplomatic, humble, poetic. And when we put the letter down, we're left with a vision of the night sky, the stars twinkling down on a miraculously unified and happy country.
Oh, and we also feel a little satisfied that he's totally stuck it to those eight clergymen.
Dr. King was a highly intelligent man. He was well-read, studious, and a scholarly theologian. He was straight up erudite. So there are some heavy-hitting, high-score scrabble words in "Letter from Birmingham Jail." But he was also a preacher, a man who made it his life's work to take the deepest truths he could fathom and preach them all over the place to common people in language they could understand.
Translation: it's accessible.
While it's self-admittedly a tad long for a letter to the editor, the ideas are like shining crystals; the phrases are balanced and even. At times you can practically hear him in your head as you read. Yeah, the flow is strong with this one.
Socrates (9, 17, 21)
Reinhold Niebuhr (10)
Unknown author, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." (11)
St Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, § 5 (12)
Thomas Aquinas, (13)
Martin Buber (13)
Paul Tillich (13)
T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (35)
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (7)
Eugene "Bull" Connor (8)
Albert Boutwell (10)
Early Christians/ Roman Empire (17)
Boston Tea Party (17)
Adolf Hitler (18)
Hungarian freedom fighters (18)
Soviet Communism (18)
White Citizens Councils/ KKK (19)
Black Nationalism/ Elijah Muhammad (22)
Martin Luther (24)
John Bunyan (24)
Abraham Lincoln (24)
Thomas Jefferson (24, 34)
Ralph McGill, Lillian Smither, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle (25)
Reverend Stallings (25)
Montgomery bus protest (27)
Governor Barnett (30)
Governor Wallace (30)
Early Christians (32)
James Meredith (36)
United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (36)
Jesus (3, 21, 24)
Paul of Tarsus (3, 24)
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—three Jews thrown into a furnace by a Babylonian king (17)
Nebuchadnezzar—that Babylonian King who threw them into the furnace (17)
"Love your enemies." (24)
Counterpunch.com relates the politics of the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s with the politics of the 21st century, especially the Black Lives Matter Movement.
This article from the Atlantic argues pretty convincingly that "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the Birmingham Campaign were the catalysts for JFK's decision to make a public address calling for a Civil Rights Bill.
In 2013, a group of churches sat down to study the letter and draft their response. It's a point-by-point analysis, kind of like Shmoop's but from a religious perspective. It only took 50 years.
Dr. King improvised the most famous part of his most famous speech. As we all know, sometimes you've just got to wing it. (Source)
King got a C in public speaking during his first year in seminary. That shouldn't give you an excuse to coast or anything, but maybe it goes to show that the occasional mediocre grade isn't the end of the world. (Note to parents: the emphasis is on occasional.) (Source)
MLK started college when he was fifteen, partly because colleges were looking for more students on account of World War II taking everybody overseas, and partly because he was a total nerd. (Source)
There are more than 900 streets named after Martin Luther King in America. Maybe because he spent so much time marching down streets? (Source)