Study Guide

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from Birmingham Jail

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like many Christian preachers, Dr. King talked about Jesus.

…A lot.

But unlike many Christian preachers, he thought Jesus' teachings were political as well as spiritual. He was a political organizer, a humanitarian, and a revolutionary, largely because he was a Baptist minister who did his best to live up to Jesus' teachings. In the process, he became the leading light of the Civil Rights Movement, a man who showed us the power of non-violent resistance to injustice.

A Prodigy for Peace

Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia right before the big stock market crash, little Martin grew up during the Great Depression in the segregated South: a huge double whammy of nastiness. But the things he witnessed during his childhood gave him a deep understanding of what it's like for poor and marginalized people in their daily lives and struggles. Later on, that understanding helped him stay emotionally connected with the most downtrodden of his parishioners and followers.

The future Dr. King was a quick study. He graduated from high school at 15 years old, received his undergrad degree at 19, nabbed his Divinity degree at 22, and figured hey, why not, and got Ph.D. at 25 (source). And just like that (that = a decade of insanely hard work), he was ready to lead one of the greatest movements for social change in American history.

The dude was driven by something, that's for sure.

Right after he earned his doctorate, MLK jumped straight into the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. He helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 (sparked by Rosa Parks' notorious and daring act of insurrectionary sitting), and in 1957 was a founding member and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He began traveling all across the country giving rousing sermons and speeches in support of civil rights.

In the years preceding the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, Dr. King was one of the most-booked people in America, establishing connections with dozens of civil rights groups, labor unions, and fundraising organizations. He traveled to Ghana and India to learn more about international struggles for freedom and justice, and he participated in sit-ins and protests across his home state of Georgia.

Busy guy.

When Things Get Tough, the Tough Get Super Peaceful Inside

Spoiler alert: there were a lot of setbacks and obstacles during those years.

For one, Dr. King was constantly receiving credible threats to his life. His house was bombed in 1956, so he knew the white supremacists were deadly serious about the horrible things they said to him over the telephone and in anonymous letters. Oh, and in 1958, he got stabbed in the chest by a mentally ill woman. But Dr. King forgave everyone, and took every moment of violence as an opportunity to talk about nonviolence and love.

Up until 1963, it often seemed like the Civil Rights Movement wasn't getting any traction. But if there's anyone who's able to stick out a tough stretch, it's a guy with a commitment to righteousness and an appreciation of history. Check and check. If the Israelites could wander in the desert for forty years, Dr. King wasn't going to let a few difficult years keep him down. (His words—ish—not ours.)

If It Was an Easy Thing, It Probably Wouldn't Be the Right Thing

Because of the mixed success of the movement up to that point, a lot was riding on the Birmingham Campaign, and "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written at a crucial moment: right when Dr. King and the SCLC were getting criticized from all angles.

Racists obviously didn't like what he had to say, and they were ready to meet protests with violence. Timid white moderates didn't like seeing conflict in the streets. Blacks who worried about a backlash didn't want the demonstrations to include children. Militant Black Nationalists thought peaceful protests were for chumps.

But the SCLC and Dr. King kept on marching anyway.

Nothing Dr. King did was easy, and writing "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (from…jail) was no exception. He wasn't even allowed paper at first, so he started writing the letter on the margins of the newspaper article he was responding to, and passed it, piece by piece, to his lawyers (source). If writing this letter from a dark jail cell isn't symbolic of his gumption, we don't know what is.

And if you want a primer on Dr. King's key beliefs, you can't do much better than "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

  • Radical brotherly and sisterly love inspired by the example of Jesus? Check.
  • Non-violent disobedience as the most effective way to overturn unjust laws? Check.
  • An unwillingness to wait for a corrupt system to change its own ways? Check.
  • Running logical circles around racists and complacent "moderates" who call for patience? Check.

Actually—checkmate.

Open the Floodgates… Let the Justice Roll (at Least Until 1965)

In hindsight, the Birmingham Campaign seems like a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. Just a few months later, Dr. King and other leaders organized the March on Washington, where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed not long after.

Then there was the five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to support voting rights for Black Americans. The marchers needed federal protection, as an earlier attempt had been abandoned after violent attacks by state police. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 shortly followed.

It's almost like there was some sort of formula for getting legislation passed…

The several years before his death were less officially successful. The Chicago Campaign, which was intended to improve housing conditions for Black people living in ghettos, ultimately failed. Dr. King spoke out forcefully and eloquently against the Vietnam War in 1967, but didn't live to see the anti-war movement come into its own. The war continued until 1975.

If You Strike Me Down

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 while lending his support to Memphis sanitation workers who were striking for better working conditions and wages. When news of his death spread, race riots broke out across the country. Over 100,000 people were in Dr. King's funeral procession, including many national leaders. (Source)

About a half a century later, we still hold on to his absolutely epic legacy.

Dr. King's words and wisdom continue to affect our nation's course, and give us just that much more hope for a bright future. Reflecting on the March from Selma to Montgomery, he told his audience that " […] the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." How optimistic is that? He showed that peaceful means can achieve political ends. His words decry racism, bigotry, and war with a poetic brilliance that gives you the chills when you hear them spoken.

Cheesy? Yes.

But true.

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