Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Themes

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Courage

    Early on in the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King's house was bombed.

    Yep. His house. Was bombed.

    Dr. King used the opportunity to double down on his philosophy of non-violence.

    In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," MLK tells us he draws inspiration from a long line of courageous leaders who shook things up without violence and hatred. All those people are great too, but if you wanted a picture of courage personified, you might as well get yourself a snapshot of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Questions About Courage

    1. What does it take to remain true to your principles and ideals like King did in the face of violence and the threat of death?
    2. Was the initial lack of support for Civil Rights legislation more a result of racism or fear? Or is racism actually motivated by fear?
    3. What do you think it was that kept Dr. King and the others going?

    Chew on This

    It takes more courage to commit to peaceful protest and civil disobedience than to use violence.

    Dr. King's epic speeches and sermons were the key to inspiring extraordinary courage in ordinary people throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

  • Perseverance

    One of the first demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began as a one-day event and ballooned into a 381-day campaign. African Americans organized an epic carpool system to deprive the bus line of fares. This act of perseverance by thousands of ordinary people catapulted the movement into the national conversation and showed everyone what persistence and patience could accomplish. In the face of wild hatred and petty obstruction, Dr. King told his followers again and again to keep on keepin' on for what is right. He himself persevered to his death.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Why do you think that it so often takes years or decades for people and communities to win concessions and rights from governmental and cultural institutions?
    2. Why was Dr. King the ideal person to encourage his followers to keep their efforts going?
    3. What would have kept you going if you were part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Civil Rights Movement?
    4. What role did the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement play in buoying their followers' spirits over the months and years of their campaigns?

    Chew on This

    Perseverance could get African Americans killed during the struggle for civil rights.

    Dr. King became one of the great American heroes because he was also one of the great stubborn people of all time.

  • Religion

    Dr. King was religious, in case you couldn't tell. He was a preacher, first and foremost, and his powerful sermons were one of the biggest driving forces of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, motivating and inspiring thousands of people to march, demonstrate, boycott, and go to jail for a moral ideal. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written to a group of fellow Christians and indirectly addressed to a highly religious country, so it's got a ton of Biblical references, religious arguments, and moral appeals. And Dr. King makes sure his readers know that he and Jesus go way back.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What was it about Jesus' teachings that Dr. King found relevant to the struggles and issues of his community?
    2. How did white Christians justify their inaction?
    3. What do you think Dr. King thought about the separation of Church and State?

    Chew on This

    If he was alive at the time, Jesus would have been marching with the Civil Rights activists, getting beat by the KKK, and getting thrown in jail.

    "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was one of the best smackdowns of religious hypocrisy in history. A polite one, though.

  • Injustice

    We know, we know—this one's kind of a given. The whole reason "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written in the first place is because there was injustice in the world. Defeating that injustice was Dr. King's whole thing. We have to wonder what he would have done with his life if there wasn't any injustice to fight. Would he have been an explorer? A diplomat? Or something more humble, like a farmer?

    As it was, he became a professional peace vigilante, resisting racism, bigotry, ignorance, poverty, and war wherever it lurked. He honestly believed that someday, justice would prevail, that it was an unstoppable force. That didn't mean you could just sit down and wait for it—you had to oppose injustice at every turn. Even if it landed you in Birmingham Jail.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. Where did Dr. King's sense of justice come from?
    2. What does MLK think laws have to do with justice?
    3. Is there a universal truth about justice and injustice that goes beyond individual religions and moral codes?
    4. What would just world would look like according to MLK? All rainbows and holding hands?

    Chew on This

    Laws don't have any direct relation to true justice; they can be right or wrong depending on the people who wrote them.

    Without laws, we couldn't have any realistic chance of achieving true justice in a human society.

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