Critical Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail

Critical Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail


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Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist and Christian minister who the leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. King was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. While growing up, King witnessed instances of racial prejudice and discrimination against African Americans in his community. King attended Morehouse College for his Sociology degree and the Crozer Theological Seminary for his theological studies. He obtained his doctorate from Boston University. King, along with other civil rights activists and racial justice campaigners, established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He led nonviolent protests and advocated for the nonviolence philosophy across the US against racial injustice and inequality. In 1964, King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace advocacy. He was assassinated on April 4, 1969 in Memphis, Tennessee (Richardson 180). He is remains one of most influential leaders and activists in American history. The Letter from Birmingham Jail exposes the racial injustice and inequality suffered by African Americans and supports nonviolence as the remedy to the problem.

Historical and Cultural Context of Letter from Birmingham Jail

King authored the letter in jail following his arrest for involvement in nonviolent demonstrations in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. In early 1963, the SCLC initiated a campaign in Birmingham to shine the spotlight on the racism, discrimination, and injustice suffered by African Americans in the city, and the state of Alabama at large (Kaplan 117). Birmingham was a highly segregated city due to the decade-long enforcement of Jim Crow laws and other prejudiced practices and policies which systematically disadvantaged blacks. Consequently, African Americans living in the city faced discrimination in education, employment, business, housing, and access to essential services such as health care. Protests by black residents of the city had been violently suppressed by the local authorities.

King and other SCLC leaders joined the local movement in April 1963 to support the campaign to overturn racial segregation and discrimination in the city. The SCLC leaders organized and led direct action and nonviolent protests to pressure local businesses and the city to roll back racial segregation. King organized peaceful protests, boycotts of certain businesses, sit-ins, mass meetings, and marches to eradicate the city’s highly segregated system. On April 10, the Birmingham City Council obtained an injunction that prohibited boycotts, demonstrations, and parades. However, the SCLC leaders disobeyed the ruling and organized marches around Birmingham. On April 13, King along with other SCLC leaders and protesters were arrested and thrown in jail (Kaplan 118). While in jail, King wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail on different pieces of paper he found in jail. The letter was in reaction to the statement by Birmingham clergymen who accused King of disrupting peace in the city through the protests.

Significance of Letter from Birmingham Jail

The text is the most impactful and important document authored by any leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The Letter from Birmingham Jail is worthwhile because it serves as a written documentation of the fight for racial justice and equality in the US (Gourley 91). The letter details the challenges faced by the civil rights leaders as they pushed for an end to racism and segregation in the US from the perspective of the Civil Rights Movement leader. The work is worthwhile because it highlighted the racial injustice suffered by African Americans in Birmingham and across the US. In this way, King was both protesting the conditions in society while stressing the urgent need to tackle the racial problem in the US. As such, the Letter from Birmingham Jail remains a critically relevant and inspiring work of protest literature.

Theme of Racial Injustice and Inequality in Letter from Birmingham Jail

Throughout the work, King takes an in-depth examination of the racial injustice and inequality prevalent in American society. King has been jailed for organizing protests, marches, and boycotts aimed at combatting racism and segregation in the city. Firstly, King examines segregation in Birmingham and how such conditions mirrored the reality in most American cities. In the letter, King labels Birmingham the most segregated city in the US. He examines the racial signs that were displayed by local merchants in stores around the city. King indicates the signs propagated segregation in the city and were racist and discriminative of African Americans living in Birmingham (Richardson, 176). King also contends that such racial signs were highly humiliating to African Americans who were constantly reminded of their second-class position in society. In this way, King is able to highlight the racial injustice and inequality in American society. King also underscores the psychological impact of segregation in the US on African Americans such as humiliation and loss of dignity.

In Letter from Birmingham Jail, King examines the problem of racial injustice and inequality in The US by drawing attention to the violence that has been endured by African Americans in America for centuries. King takes note of the unspeakable cruelties unleashed upon blacks during the slavery era. He states that African Americans have waited 340 years to achieve equality and enjoy their constitutional rights. King discusses how racism in the US has contributed to incidents of lynching and drowning of blacks (King par.12). He states that African Americans have lost their mothers, fathers, and siblings in the hands of vicious mobs. King goes on to discuss the disproportionate use of force by the police on African Americans. King points out that the criminal justice system is biased against blacks who can never receive justice in the courts. He decries how prejudiced police officers in the US routinely brutalize and kill African Americans (Augustine 253). Through these examples, King manages to highlight the violent treatment of Africans Americans as a direct consequence of racial injustice and inequality in the US. He contends that the result of racist violence is that African Americans have been forced to live in a state of fear and worry. He indicates that African Americans live in a tiptoe stance, always fearing for the worst (King par.12)

In the work, King brings to light the widespread discrimination that African Americans experience in the US in different components of life. King explores how racism and segregation in the US are applied to exclude and disadvantage African Americans. King provides an example of a child who is excluded from playing in a public amusement park solely on the basis of the color of her skin (King par.12). He expresses the discrimination suffered by black who are denied access to accommodation in motels around the US on the basis of their race. King located the role that businesspersons played in perpetuating segregation in the US by enforcing discriminative policies to exclude African Americans from their premises. The evidence of racism and segregation that King presents in the work serves to point out the disparate treatment of whites and blacks in the country. On one hand, whites thrive while blacks are confined to cages of poverty.  He argues that the widespread segregation cultivated a sense of nobodiness in African Americans and sparked bitterness and resentment towards whites (Buckley 197-198). In this sense, King emphasizes how racism and segregation have contributed to the dehumanization of African Americans which has, in turn, furthered and encouraged their mistreatment.


Argument for Nonviolence

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King makes the case for nonviolent methods to combat the scourge of racial injustice and inequality in the US. King explains that the systematic racism and segregation in the US leaves no option to African Americans but to engage in protest. In urging for nonviolent protests, King deconstructs the calls for negotiation. He contends that while negotiation is the preferred route towards racial justice and equality, it is impossible to negotiate within a system that only engages in monologue while eschewing dialogue (King par.10). According to him, the goal of direct action, sit-ins, and boycotts are to increase the urgency for negotiations. King argues that through nonviolent measures such as direct action, the movement will create considerable pressure and tension in society to the extent that negotiations will become inevitable. Therefore, King makes the point that constructive, nonviolent actions are the most fruitful path to negotiations that will lead to the erosion of racial injustice and inequality.

King argues that African Americans have been forced to take up nonviolent actions and civil disobedience due to the injustice prevalent in US society, especially in the South. King points to unjust laws in society as the catalysts for the protests of the civil rights era. He recounts that opponents of the direct action, protests, and boycotts in the US claim that King is in contravention of some laws, and those people wonder how he can advocate for law-breaking. King answers those critics by making the distinction between just and unjust laws. He explains that a just law is in agreement with both God’s law and moral law. On the other, an unjust law stands in opposition to the laws of God and morality. King argues that any law that degrades human personality of denigrates a person’s dignity or worth is unjust (Xiong 175). He also states that an unjust law is one which the majority imposes upon the minority but is unwilling to follow itself. Based on these criteria, King denotes the segregation statutes as inherently unjust since those laws degrade the personality of African Americans. He argues that segregation is unjust, morally wrong, and sinful along with the fact that it is sociologically, politically, and economically unsound. He provides the example of the State of Alabama which uses devious schemes to deny African Americans the right to engage in democratic processes such as voting despite considerable numbers of blacks in the state (King par.16). King then states that he has a moral duty to obey unjust laws that perpetuate segregation and racial injustice in the US.

In Letter from Birmingham Jail, King contends that is will be impossible to keep African Americans oppressed forever. King argues that at one point, African Americans will surely gain freedom and racial justice, and the current actions are steps towards that goal. He states that now more than ever, the African American community is conscious of the need for racial justice and equality and nonviolent means will be utilized with more intensity to overcome racism and segregation. King declares that blacks have suffered cruelty and prejudice for over three hundred years in the US and that protests are inevitable (King par.12). He states that while African Americans have waited for too long for freedom to come for them, they have lost patience and are willing to go out in search of it. Through these sentiments, King makes clear the inevitability of civil disobedience and nonviolent action in the march towards racial justice and equality in the US.

King denounces the extremist label that some of the critics of his methods have bestowed upon him. He argues against the label citing his advocacy for nonviolent direct action as his preferred tool for agitation against segregation and racial injustice in the US (Augustine 260-261). King notes that as Christian, he is strongly opposed to violence as a means to achieving the aims of the Civil Rights Movement. King demarcates African Americans into two groups. One group has grown complacent due to years of oppression and have thereby lost all self-respect and dignity. The group also comprises of African Americans who have grown insensitive to the plight of the masses because they have accumulated wealth by exploiting segregation. The other group comprises blacks who are hateful and bitter and would advocate for violence as the solution to racial injustice and inequality (King par.23). King states that he stands in the middle of those two forces but warns that millions of African Americans will take up violent ideologies if nonviolent efforts are suppressed.

Finally, King notes that one of the biggest obstacles to the attainment of racial justice and equality in the US is the white moderate. King argues that the white moderate presents a bigger obstacle to the campaign for racial justice than white extremist groups such as the Ku Klax Klan. He argues that white moderates are yet to recognize the urgency of the situation and therefore lack the will to support or undertake powerful action to combat segregation and racism in American society. Subsequently, the white moderate is painted as someone who supports the ideals of social and racial justice but is oppose to the nonviolent actions undertaken by the Civil Rights Movement to achieve that goal. King condemns the white moderate who shows more faithful to order over the attainment of racial justice and equality (King par.20). He chides the white moderate for preferring the absence of tension over the presence of positive peace. King opposes the urging of the white moderate to wait for the right season and instead declares that the time is right to advocate for racial justice and equality through nonviolent action (Kaplan 121).


Letter from Birmingham Jail is an influential and relevant work of protest literature. In the work, King undertakes a dissection of the problem of racial injustice and inequality in the US. He explains how segregation and racism in the US have adversely affected African Americans by inflicting humiliation and subjecting blacks to dehumanizing treatment. King condemns the racial violence meted on black by lynch mobs and the police. King contends that segregation and racial injustice in the US have eroded the self-worth and dignity of African Americans who live in worry as second-class citizens in their country.  Afterward, King puts forth a convincing argument for nonviolent as the remedy to the pervasive racial injustice and inequality in American society. Therefore, the Letter from Birmingham Jail exposes the racial injustice and inequality suffered by African Americans and supports nonviolence as the remedy to the problem.




Works Cited

Buckley, Brian J. “Racism and the Denial of Personhood.” Quaestiones Disputatae 9.2 (2019): 196-217.

Gourley, Bruce T. “Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation.” Baptist History and Heritage 49.2 (2014): 76.

Kaplan, Howard. “The Rule of Law and Civil Disobedience: The Case Behind King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Social Education 77.3 (2013): 117-121.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” (1963)

Richardson III, Henry J. “From Birmingham’s Jail to Beyond the Riverside Church: Martin Luther King’s Global Authority.” Howard LJ 59 (2015): 169.

Xiong, Li. “American Thought Embodied in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.” DEStech Transactions on Social Science, Education and Human Science meit (2018).

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