King's Letter from Birmingham Jail

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is full of symbolism and literary styles. Apart from the fact that the letter was addressed to the clergy who had condemned the nonviolent demonstrations of the Negroes in Birmingham, King used this opportunity to inform the clergy that matters to do with the freedom of the black people were as dear to his heart as it is to any good willing person. This paper is an analysis of King’s letter to the clergy. It will therefore seek identify the issue in question from King’s point of view.

The context in which this letter is written is that of betrayal and lack of insight. The eight clergy with whom King is rebutting had written a letter well titled Call for Unity. However, instead of remaining neutral to the things that were happening in Birmingham, the clergy had taken upon themselves to accuse the Negros in Birmingham as being responsible for the widespread segregation in the city. The clergy have gone ahead to commend the Birmingham police for their good behaviors with Negroes but this is not true given the kind of treatment the Negroes are exposed to away from the glare of the public.

The main audience of this letter is the eight clergy to whom the letter is addressed. However, one in a while King drifts away from the audience and speak directly to the people who are fighting using nonviolent demonstrations against the laws and policies that he believes are unlawful. He states that, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” (King, 2) Evidently these questions are directed to audiences other than the clergy as the clergy themselves are not involved in the extremists of any kind much less that for the course of justice. Occasionally, he turns the letter into a monologue where he asks several rhetoric questions concerning people who were extremists in the course they believed. For instant, he asks if Jesus Christ was not an extremist of love. Of course, King does not expect an answer to these questions, but rather he wants to elicit the emotional and mental awareness that is so long in the men of clothes. By listing several men who pursued a worthy course that they believed in, King’s is using logos to bring to the attention of the clergy the need not to fear what is happening in Birmingham. He is instead of the opinion that they should just jump into the bandwagon and support the nonviolent match by the Negroes.

The main area of concern from the King’s point of view is the failure of the clergy to stand up for the good of the Negro. They instead opt to condemn them for what the clergy believes are unjustifiable claims. King’s response forms the base of his argument first before exposing the facts about nonviolent and the struggle of freedom from segregation. His argument that, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement... fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations, (King, 1)” serves to demonstrate to the clergy, through love and emotions, that they have failed in their duty as crusaders of peace and freedom. Any attempt to illegalize the process of nonviolent demonstration is met with logical, factual, and ethical countenance by himself who rightly states that, injustice anywhere was the same as injustice everywhere.

King’s letter is effective as far as the facts therein are true. Ultimately, the letter is full of intellectually informed statements, sound and mature discussions and explanations backed up with examples and illustrations. Moreover, King generally appeals even to opponents of the Negros movement with his social, political, and economic analysis and knowledge that he exhibits. The main reason this letter is written is to call on the clergy to support the nonviolent movement because sooner or letter they will have to bear with the truth that they cannot stop the call for freedom by black people.  The letter is also aimed at rebutting the work of the city police who the clergy seems to hold in high esteem although because there are not aware of their clandestine activities away from the public. King therefore wants to bring this very knowledge to the clergy and let them decide whom they want to support. But he is quick to remind them that with or without their support, the Negro person will crawl out of their present predicament.

King uses contrasts and comparisons to elicit emotions and describe facts about what segregation is causing the Negros. For instance, he argues that segregation was based on the unjust law and just like the early Christians embodied by Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego’s refusal to obey the unjust laws of Nebuchadnezzar; they were also entitled to disobey the laws in Birmingham to the extent that those laws conflicted with the moral law. He uses logic to argue this point out and even gives the examples of  Hitler and Hungarian freedom fighters to conclude that, “so segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful (King, 2).”

One of the fallacies that King brings to the attention of the clergy is the belief of the white moderates that takes the absence of tension to signify the existence of peace. According to him, this is negative peace and it only amounts to suppression of freedom and speech, because speech is compared to tension by the carriers of segregation. Instead, he argues that positive peace should be allowed to exist and this can only occur when there is justice for everyone in the society. On this issue, he disagrees with the methods and instruments that the clergy want to use to achieve peace claiming that that will only lead to the negative peace to the Negro.

Another fallacy that King sees with the white system of delivering freedom is the issue of time, where it is claimed that time is not yet ripe for a Negro to get his freedom. In fact, the system claims that Jesus took time to bring his teachings to the world and Christianity itself took almost 2000 years to reach where it is today. But he disagrees with this assertion and argues on the neutrality of time that it can produce both constructive and destructive elements to the society. As such, he claims that time should be used as a limiting factor to the delivery of freedom to the Negro.

King calls for honesty, truthfulness, and hard work as some of the ethical standards that are going to deliver freedom to the people. On the contrary, he sees dishonesty, buying of time, and total outright disobedience of federal courts’ statutes as a means of denying the Negro their rights and continual oppression of the Negro through unjust laws as the unethical qualities of the white moderators.


King’s letter is packed with serious evidences that indicate that the law is bent and the Negro is deliberately denied his freedom by the unjust system. The letter uses reliable references including the bible and historical events to reinforce its claims. Therefore, I believe that the letter is effective enough to cause the eight clergy to change their stance on the issue of nonviolent activities in Birmingham by the Negros and indeed come to support them for their claim for freedom and equality.

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