Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Main Idea

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  • Main Idea

    We Should Resist Injustice Everywhere with Non-Violent Disobedience

    In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King says that we're all responsible for justice across the nation—and around the world. Justice isn't defined or contained by mere laws. After all, laws are basically just words written by human beings. When dumb, unjust laws get written and people suffer as a result, it's necessary to protest those laws by deliberately and non-violently breaking them, even if the resulting unrest and "social tension" is inconvenient for some folks. The time is always now for justice, and there's no good reason to wait for the right thing to be done by someone else. We always have to do it ourselves.

    Tl;dr: Get off your butts and march for freedom, people.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. What's the deal with all this anti-outsider rhetoric? Why did the white clergymen criticize MLK and the other demonstrators for coming from outside the community? Does "outsider" stand for something else?
    2. What would Jesus have done in the '60s? Would he have marched with Dr. King? Is racial justice implied by the fundamental teachings of Christianity, as King suggested to the guys who he was writing to?
    3. Who's King's real audience for this letter? Is it the white clergymen who protested his protests? Others?
    4. Does the fact that King wrote the letter while sitting in jail make it more effective?

    Chew on This

    Non-violent civil disobedience is the best way to change our world; FYI, everybody, violence doesn't work.

    "Letter From Birmingham Jail" wouldn't be remembered today if it hadn't been written from a jail cell. ("Letter From the Comfort of My Atlanta Office" doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Dr. King was arrested and sent to jail for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. After reading an open letter from eight white clergymen in the local newspaper criticizing him and his fellow activists, MLK decided he might as well write back to let them know what was on his mind. Enter: letter to the editor.

    The Text

    Turns out he had a lot on his mind, and that he hadn't just shown up to the protest to get out of preaching to his congregation for a few days. He had a philosophy and a plan and everything.

    Dr. King used the opportunity to bring everybody up to speed about the protests in Birmingham, what they were about (horrible systemic racism); why the protestors were civilly disobeying (racist) laws and ordinances; why the protestors had truth and justice (and Jesus/America) on their side; and how Dr. King was disappointed with clergymen in the South and so-called white moderates who supposedly believed in his cause but didn't like the "tension" and unrest caused by the protests.

    TL; DR

    Get off the couch, get out in the streets, and protest injustice with civil disobedience and love.

  • Questions

    1. What is the current state of race relations in America? What factors do you think encourage racial conflict? What factors encourage harmony?
    2. Would Dr. King be saying anything different today if he was still alive? What causes would he be involved in?
    3. Why do you think Dr. King was assassinated?
    4. Why does racism exist and persist? What is it about skin color that gets people all screwy?
    5. Why were so many Christians in the South against the non-violent demonstrations of Dr. King and his supporters and colleagues?
    6. Why does King think that "moderate" whites are almost more dangerous that outright racists?
    7. The letter is pretty restrained in its tone, and King is trying to be respectful to the eight clergymen. What do you think he was really feeling while he was writing it?
    8. Have you ever witnessed a racist act and done nothing about it? Why not? If you intervened, why?

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