Letter From Birmingham Jail is an open letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Birmingham City Jail on April 16th, 1963. He wrote it as a rebuttal to an article written by 8 white clergymen called “A Call for Unity” which was a response to the 1963 Birmingham nonviolent campaign. As a piece of nonfiction writing, there aren’t characters in the traditional sense, rather Dr.King refers to several historical figures and contemporary individuals. Let’s dive into the Letter From Birmingham Jail key figures analysis.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent members of the American Civil Rights movement. A Baptist Minister, he propounded nonviolence and civil disobedience inspired by Christian beliefs and the work of Mahatma Gandhi. He was active from 1955 till his assassination in 1968.
The Birmingham Campaign in 1963 was a series of nonviolent protests consisting of marches and sit-ins protesting racial segregation. Dr. King was already a prominent member of the civil rights movement and was arrested early in the campaign. He wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail during his incarceration which became an influential text in the civil rights movement.
Though he was working on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), local clergymen wrote an article titled “A Call for Unity” where they criticized the Birmingham Campaign and Dr. King. In a Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. King defends his actions, using his wide knowledge of the bible and philosophy.
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In the letter, he states that civil disobedience has always existed in the face of unjust laws and practices. He uses the example of early Christians and calls himself the son and grandson of preachers. In some ways, he compares himself to the Apostle Paul, who also wrote letters from a jail cell and later spread the work of Jesus and freedom.
Dr. King went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and was instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was assassinated in 1968 by a white segregationist.
Letter From Birmingham Jail Key People
The 8 Clergymen
The 8 white clergymen who wrote the article “A Call for Unity” are C. C. J. Carpenter, Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, George M. Murray, Edward V. Ramage, and Earl Stallings. They criticized the Birmingham campaign, and praised the police, stating that protests like this would only increase hatred. They asked people to wait for desegregation to happen through the court system.
Eugene "Bull" Conner
Eugene Connor was the Police Chief during the Birmingham Campaign and one of the Letter From Birmingham Jail key people. He was a self-admitted racist and segregationist who ran for mayor but lost just before the campaign. In A Call for Unity, the clergymen praised the police, but Conner allowed the use of water cannons and attack dogs to disperse the nonviolent protests.
Albert Boutwell was elected mayor of Birmingham instead of Eugene Conner. In A Call for Unity, the clergymen criticized Dr. King, saying that he should have let Boutwell address segregation rather than just start the campaign. Dr. King replied saying that just because Boutwell was less aggressive than Conner, it didn’t take away from the fact that he was a segregationist.
Dr. King as a Baptist preacher and a devout Christian leaned heavily on his biblical knowledge and Christian faith. In a Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. King uses Jesus’ teachings as a guiding factor for his philosophy and calls him an extremist for love, making him one of the Letter From Birmingham Jail key figures.
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Mahatma Gandhi was an Indian freedom fighter, lawyer, civil rights activist, and philosopher who employed nonviolent methods of protest to help India gain independence from the British. Dr. King greatly admired him and many of his philosophies shaped his own rhetoric making him one of the Letter From Birmingham Jail key people.
St. Augustine was an early Christian theologian who said that laws should be examined before being put in place no matter who makes the law. Dr. King quotes him in the letter when he says "An unjust law is no law at all".
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thoman Aquinas was a 13th Century philosopher who integrated Aristotelian philosophy with Christian teachings. He made a distinction between natural law which is derived from morality and human law which is based on the situation and who is in power. His ideas deeply influenced Dr, King, thus making him one of the Letter From Birmingham Jail key figures.
One of the white Baptist Ministers who authored A Call for Unity, Dr.King nevertheless commended him for opening his church to black Christians.
To Sum Up
Along with the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Letter From Birmingham is one of the most influential of Dr. King’s statements and the most important pieces of rhetoric from the Civil Rights Movement. The letter speaks about morality, civil disobedience, and justice intertwining teachings from Christianity, philosophers, and civil rights activists. It is still a very relevant piece of writing, but it is quite complicated, especially understanding the historical context of the Letter From Birmingham Jail key figures. If you need any help with an assignment about Letter From Birmingham Jail, reach out to the experts at Studyfy!