Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Summary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail is an open letter that advocates for nonviolent resistance to racism. In the letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. argues that people are morally obligated to go against unjust laws and take direct actions against such laws, as opposed to waiting indefinitely for justice through the courts of law. The letter was a response to clergymen who maintained that although social injustices existed, the war against racial discrimination should only be addressed through the courts. King responded to these criticisms on religious, legal, historical and political grounds.
King pointed out that he and his group of activists were not outsiders merely causing mayhem in the streets. He pointed out that as the leader of the SCLC, they had a responsibility to act against the vast injustice in Birmingham. He believed that any issue that affected one person directly would have an indirect effect on everyone. King argued that his team was using nonviolent actions to generate constructive tension to induce talks with the white authorities, so as to achieve true civil rights. This was in response to the clergymen’s disapproval of the tension caused by King and his fellow activists though public marches and sit-ins.
King defended the SCLC’s timing of their public actions by saying that the movement’s decision to adjourn its actions showed a sense of responsibility. He also argued that civil disobedience was justifiable, necessary and patriotic in the event of unfair laws. The letter said that what mattered was not whether or not the activists were extremists, but rather the kind of extremists they were. King argued that most of the historical reformers, including Jesus, were extremists. Finally, King disparaged the clergy’s commendation of the police for their nonviolent maintenance of order. He argued that such public displays were merely public relations stunts that sharply contrasted their usual treatment of blacks, thus preserving the corrupt system of racial discrimination.