Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Compare and Contrast

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

    You know Gandhi: the guy who led the movement for Indian independence from British rule in the early 20th century. Wait, what? You know him for something else? Oh yeah, that's because he also advocated for a lot of other issues similar to those of Dr. King and the American Civil Rights Movement decades later: ending poverty, eliminating the "untouchable" caste in India, arguing in favor of women's rights, and promoting ethnic and religious harmony.

    Controversial stuff, we know.

    Dr. King's strategy and philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience was largely influenced by his exposure to Gandhi's life, work, and ideas early in his education. Like Dr. King, Gandhi was a religiously and spiritually motivated pacifist, so he believed that even if the British Empire didn't have an enormous military advantage over the Indian nationalists (they did), violent struggle for independence would have been both unethical and unproductive.

    Sadly, he met the same fate as Dr. King: assassination.

  • The New Testament

    As a Baptist preacher, Dr. King naturally thought the Bible had a few important things to say. And like a lot of Christians, he found wisdom in both the New and Old Testaments. But it's clear he considered Jesus to be the biggest hero of the story. Like ya do.

    The Big Boss of Bethlehem, as he's sometimes known (to us), pops up again and again in Dr. King's speeches, essays, and letters. Jesus' famous teachings to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38) to the one who strikes you, and to love one's enemies (Luke 6:27), are some of the oldest and clearest pacifist teachings recorded in world literature.

    One of the most striking allusions in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is the reference to the oppression of early Christians, who as Dr. King put it, "were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire" (17).

    Thankfully, the Birmingham Police didn't have any lions on hand in 1963.

  • Civil Disobedience by Thoreau

    Writer, thinker, transcendentalist, and neckbeard enthusiast, Henry David Thoreau published his essay, "Civil Disobedience" in 1849. It basically argued that governments do messed up stuff way too often, and that individuals should follow their own moral conscience instead of going along with unjust laws, wars, and customs.

    Thoreau saw slavery for the nightmare and abomination it was, and also railed against the beginnings of what he considered American imperialism, which at the time was epitomized for Thoreau by the Mexican-American War.

    There are many nuggets of wisdom, controversy, and 19th century New England wit in the essay. But there is at least one argument that made its way directly into Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail": we shouldn't have respect for law just because it's the law.

    I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. […] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. (Source)

    Not included in "Civil Disobedience": Thoreau's passionate argument in favor of neckbeards.

  • Malcolm X

    Malcolm X gets compared (and contrasted) to Dr. King quite a bit.

    He didn't write much, and instead came to notoriety through television interviews and speeches. Early in his public life, he was an ardent follower of Elijah Muhammad, the Black Nationalist leader of the Nation of Islam known for his anti-white racism.

    Black Nationalists in general were opposed to the strategy and tactics of the SCLC and Dr. King, thinking they weren't radical or militant enough. As we know, Dr. King responded by saying he was a radical. A love radical.

    It sounds like a good rebuttal to us, but at the time, the anger in Black communities around the country kept that message from resonating with everyone. Malcolm X and his followers gave a voice to that anger.

    Like many Black Nationalists, Malcolm X urged Black Americans to protect themselves and to become self-sufficient as a community. He used the surname of "X" as a form of protest against his given name, which had been handed down through the generations, but which was originally the name of the slave-owner who subjugated his ancestors. It was a very good point to make, but Malcolm might also have been motivated by the fact that his given name was Little. He wanted to be big, and to represent something big, that name had to go.

    Late in his life, Malcolm X severed ties with the Nation of Islam and went to Mecca for a pilgrimage, where he learned more about Islam as it was practiced in Africa and the Middle East. After this trip, he famously reversed some of his most radical views, saying that he had been deluded by the leaders of the Nation of Islam, and that he had been wrongly racist against whites.

    How extensive this turnabout in perspective was we'll never know, because shortly after his return to the U.S., Malcolm X was assassinated.

    Sensing a pattern? Ugh.

  • The KKK, White Citizens' Councils, "Bull" Connor

    Technically, this bunch was a group of "thinkers," though it's hard to compare their thought process to anyone in the Civil Rights Movement. It's a standing question how people can be so viciously racist and violent to people with a different skin color. Psychologists and sociologists have written about this subject for a long time.

    They've got some good theories.

    One very simple answer to the question of racism is that everybody likes to belong to something greater than themselves, and everybody likes to have power. For white people in the South, that power historically came from owning slaves. When they couldn't have slaves anymore, a lot of white people could still feel powerful by making African Americans unequal at every turn.

    Racial hatred and intimidation has been embedded in American culture for so long that remnants of it are still hanging around despite changes in unjust laws (or maybe because of changes in unjust laws). And while the KKK isn't what it used to be, there are still people who actually spend whole evenings putting white sheets over their heads and burning giant crosses in the woods.

    Don't they have anything more productive to do?