He wrote the letter from prison, where he had been arrested for taking part in protests and marches in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King addresses eight clergymen who had published an open letter criticizing the actions of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for their actions in Birmingham. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” plot isn’t a linear story, but rather an exploration of the different themes involved in the struggle of African Americans for equality.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Plot Overview
The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” summary begins with King responding to the clergymens’ suggestion that his actions were “unwise and untimely.” King makes a point of noting that he receives a lot of criticism which he usually doesn’t respond to, but wants to address the concerns of the clergymen as he believes their article was written sincerely.
King, not from Alabama, addresses the concern of “outsiders coming in”, by claiming that he is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern American state. It is natural for these groups to share resources across jurisdictions, and King was invited to participate in non-violent demonstrations. He is in Alabama primarily because of injustice, and compares himself to prophets, who spread the word of Jesus beyond their hometowns. He claims he cannot stand by while others are suffering, as everyone is connected. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is a quote that sums up this point.
The letter continues to say that the clergymens’ concern of “outsiders” doesn’t extend to the nationwide oppression of Negros through a white power structure that left protestors no alternative but to act. King states that “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” Horrific violence, including bombing of Negro churches can no longer be ignored. King says that Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city’s leaders, including those from the economic community, where an agreement was made that if those advocating for African American rights didn’t march, racist signs would be removed. Unfortunately, the signs returned, so King says that people have no choice but to put their bodies on the line in protest.
Here, King repeats his commitment to nonviolence: “We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’” MLK defends direct action as an alternative to negotiation as it forces people to confront the issues they normally don’t want to pay attention to. He refers to Socrates, saying that just as tension in the mind is necessary for intellectual growth, tension in society is necessary for people to examine themselves and their prejudices. The aim is for attention, leading to negotiation.
The clergymen said the SCLC’s protest was untimely, as a new mayor had come into power, who had not yet had time to act on racism in the community. King answers that it is naive to believe the new mayor, Mr. Boutwell, would change things for the Negro community without being pressured by civil rights groups. King continues that he has never made a gain without legal and nonviolent pressure, with any group in power unwilling to voluntarily give up their dominance. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” summary continues with King writing that African Americans have waited for more than 340 years for “our constitutional and God given rights”, comparing their situation to countries in Asia and Africa who are gaining political independence with greater speed. He continues that it might be easier for those in a position of dominance to say “wait”, but for those that watch their family members impacted by segregation, killed and beaten and affected by poverty, there is no other option but to act now. At this point King gives examples of the kinds of racism infecting the US in the 60’s, including amusement parks and motels that ban “colored” people, and the dehumanising ways that Negroes in America are addressed compared to their white counterparts. There comes a time when these events can no longer be endured, and King asks the clergymen to understand the legitimate impatience of protestors.
Next, King addresses the clergymens’ anxiety over the protestors willingness to break laws. How can the SLSC urge people to follow the law passed by the Supreme Court of America, outlawing segregation, while ignoring other laws? King answers his own question by explaining that there are two types of laws, just and unjust: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Once again, King points to his strong religious faith in quoting St. Augustine: "an unjust law is no law at all." He continues that a just law must also be rooted in eternal and natural law, and uplift, rather than degrade human personality. Segregation, King contends, is unjust as it raises one group above another, creating a false sense of superiority in the oppressor, and a false sense of inferiority in those oppressed. On all counts – segregation is not only “politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”
King expands on this theme by further dissecting unjust laws. It is unjust to enact a code that a majority group does not obey, but nevertheless forces on a minority group. In the case of segregation, the minority group have not had the chance to vote on the law, and have had no hand in devising it.
The text continues with King questioning the legitimacy of the “democratically elected” government of Alabama. He points to the fact that methods are used to try and stop Negroes from registering to vote.
Coming back to the main question of “unlawful” actions, King says that although he and others broke a law requiring a permit for their protest, this protest was in fact legitimate on the basis of equality for all citizens and the First-Amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest. In contrast to breaking all laws, which would lead to anarchy, King says those breaking unjust laws must do so with the right intentions and be willing to accept the penalty. “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
King points to a history of righteous civil disobedience, including the protest of unjust laws in Babylon to the Roman Empire. Academic freedom was achieved in part due to Socrates practising civil disobedience. King then comes closer to the present day, mentioning the Boston Tea Party’s acts of disobedience, the fact that the denial of liberty in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was “legal”, and that those fighting for Hungarian independence from the Soviets in 1956 was “illegal”.
At this stage of the letter, King focuses his attention on the “white moderate”, explaining his disappointment. He contends rather than the member of the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens’ Council, it is the “white moderate” that is the “great stumbling block” to achieving a fairer society for African Americans. He continues that a white moderate is more interested in “order” than justice, a negative peace with the absence of tension and a positive peace with the presence of justice. King takes aim at their paternalism, and belief that they know better how, when and in what way to protest injustice. He encourages the moderates to be understanding, and that the current tension is for a higher cause, that of social progress.
King further defends the “tension” brought about by protestors actions, claiming that they have not created it, they are merely bringing it to the surface. He takes issue with the clergymens’ assertion that even peaceful actions must be condemned as they will lead to violence: “Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?” Rather than protect the robber, society must punish him.
Here, King returns to the theme of “timeliness” of protestors’ actions, and the concept of time in general. He talks about a letter he received from a moderate, claiming Negroes are in too great a rush for equality; that it will occur eventually. King refutes this, saying that time itself will not “cure all ills”. Time can be used constructively or destructively, and without hard work, society will stagnate.
King outlines how he stands between two groups in the Negro community; the first being those that are so oppressed that they feel nothing but anger, and the other being those that have become “middle-class” and have lost touch with the masses. King recognizes the black liberation fronts, such as Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement that have given up on America, Christianity, and constructive dialogue with white people altogether, but says that we needn’t emulate the black nationalist, nor the people who don’t do anything about the situation. King highlights the “excellent way of love and nonviolent protest”.
King again comes back to his Christian faith, saying that without God and the Negro church, there would be a more violent struggle for freedom. Despite initially being frustrated at being called an “extremist” he says that he has gained some satisfaction from the label, seeing that Jesus was an extremist for love, and other biblical figures were extremists for justice and the Christian faith. He continues that it is dangerous for the white community to dismiss non-violent protest, as it would further drive desperate Negroes to black nationalism. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” - King repeats that as those in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean gain greater agency, the United States Negro is moving with an urgency towards his own freedom.
Knowing that he is speaking to the conscience of America, he quotes Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free", as well as Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." In a spirit of optimism he also says that he is thankful for “white brothers in the South” who have written about and campaigned for social justice.
Close to the end of his letter, King expresses his disappointment “with the white church and its leadership.” He believed that as a minister himself, he would have been supported by those in the South when protesting against inequality, but this was not the case, with religious leaders standing on the sideline or even turning their backs to those who are struggling. King clarifies that his deep disappointment is only because of his deep love for the church, stating that it was once, in more powerful times, a strong force for enlightenment and change. The strength of the Christians, who were once happy to suffer for what they believe, were feared as “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. King contrasts this with now, where the church is weaker and therefore only prepared to defend the status quo. He says that if this stance continues, the church will become irrelevant, and continues that it is already stoking wider disappointment and even disgust. King once again mentions those who have “...broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”
MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” summary concludes on a hopeful note, saying that he has no fear about the outcome of the struggles in Birmingham as the goal of freedom is central to the country of America. Despite the humiliation and degradation of African Americans for hundreds of years, they have continued to thrive and develop. King once again reprimands the clergymen for praising the Birmingham city police force, despite their violence towards the peaceful protests of men, women and children, and their upholding of segregation in the American south. He further admonishes the policemen for using “moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
King concludes that the real heroes of the South will be recognized as those who suffered in the pursuit of justice, in the pursuit of the American dream as it was defined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.