Letter From Birmingham Jail Themes

Marissa L.
4
min read
Aug 20, 2021

Letter From Birmingham Jail was written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in Birmingham jail after he was arrested for taking part in the Birmingham Campaign nonviolent protest in Alabama in 1963. It became one of the most important writings of the American Civil Rights movement and one of the most important texts written by a political prisoner. It is somewhat unfortunate that even now, more than fifty years later, the themes of Letter From Birmingham Jail; racism, justice, religion, extremism, non-violence, humanity, and individual action are still as important and relevant as when the letter was written. Let's take a deeper look into the Letter From Birmingham Jail themes. 

Racism

Unsurprisingly, race is the overarching theme of Letter From Birmingham Jail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter while he was incarcerated at Birmingham Jail for taking part in a nonviolent protest In Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in America. Rather than highlight differences between races, the letter highlights systematic difficulties that the black population was facing and asks people to focus on shared common humanity. The letter speaks about the atrocities faced by black people including violence like lynchings as well as economic issues due to segregationist policies. The letter is not a call for arms, rather it is about the inherent racism that existed within society and why it was time for people to take a stand. 

Justice

In the letter, Dr. King speaks in-depth about the idea of Justice making it an important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. Though he writes the letter from jail, he does not believe that he has done something unjust. The protest may have been illegal but it serves a greater idea of justice. He believes that when laws are inherently unjust, people have the right to stand up against them. Dr. King says that the prevalent laws are unjust for two main reasons. He makes a distinction between man-made laws and divine moral laws. There is no justice if certain laws are immoral. He also makes the argument that laws must apply equally to everyone within a country. A law that discriminates between people is inherently unjust. Dr. King is willing to take the punishments that the law states for his actions even if he believes the law is unjust because his goal is to show the absurdity of the law, not to flout it. 

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Religion

Dr. King came from a long line of preachers and was a preacher himself. Christianity was a big part of his philosophy, so it’s no surprise that he makes appeals to religion in the letter. Letter From Birmingham Jail was written in response to an article written by 8 white clergymen titled “A Call for Unity”, which criticized the nonviolent Birmingham Campaign protests. Dr. King states that churches in the south will be judged harshly for upholding ideas that go against the basic Christian idea of kindness. He compares the protests to the actions of early Christians that had to fight for their right to practice their religion. Dr. King appeals to religion because his faith in Christianity motivates his belief that humans are, and should be, kind to each other and treat each other as brothers and sisters. He does not solely on religion to make his point though, but as an important element to enhance his overall message of equality

Extremism

Extremism is another important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. Dr. King starts by making a distinction between different types of extremism. On one end are violent protesters and on the other end are African-Americans who have given up hope for change. He does not consider himself or his movement extremist because they follow a path of non-violence and civil disobedience against laws that are inherently unjust. He then gives the example of Jesus Christ, who he calls an extremist for love, and Abraham Lincoln, who was considered an extremist because of his stance against slavery. Eventually, he redefines and reclaims the word extremist and believes that moderates who choose to follow the status quo and sit by while injustice happens are more dangerous than the extremism he believes in.  

Nonviolence

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was heavily influenced by nonviolent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi so it is no surprise that it is an important Letter From Birmingham Jail theme. In the letter, he speaks about the importance of the ”creative tension” that nonviolent protest and civil disobedience creates. He makes the point that the dissatisfaction endemic in the African American population needs to have an outlet, and if it is not by non-violent means then it will happen through violence. One of the criticisms levied against him in A Call for Unity was why he did not negotiate rather than stage a protest. He says in the letter that marginalized communities with no power are unable to negotiate equally unless there is some form of tension. Nonviolence fits into his idea of justice. The goal was not to hurt anyone or to escape punishment, rather the goal of the protest was to willingly sacrifice to create positive tension. 

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Humanity

In the letter, Dr. King explains and shows that people should treat each other with respect. There is no distinction between different races or religions, and geographic distinctions like North and South don’t matter. Everyone is a part of humanity. He appeals not just to emotions but makes philosophical arguments and logical arguments for why segregation is inherently unjust. He says that ”Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”. He believes that all human beings are connected, and especially those that live in the same society need to live equally and share their humanity. 

Action

One of the most important Letter From Birmingham Jail themes is the need for immediate and individual action. Many people, especially white moderates and complacent African-Americans, believed that with time equality would spread to all communities in America. Dr. King states that time by itself does not change anything, it is people who make changes in society. He believes that people who do nothing and just wait are as dangerous as openly racist people because those people live to protect order and their own comfortable lives rather than protect important ideas like equality and justice. He makes comparisons to recent history and looking at the example of countries in Asia and Africa who were gaining independence from their colonial Masters says that waiting does not work. Action is required if a change needs to happen and that is why everyone must do their part.

 

There are a few answers to the question: what is the theme of Letter From Birmingham Jail?  Of course, overall the letter is about racism, but one of the most important themes is the call to individual action. Letter From Birmingham Jail is a brilliant, moving, and convincing piece of writing because it uses deep themes like religion and the concept of justice and humanity to build a case for the overarching ideas about the injustice of racism and the requirement of action. If you need any more help with understanding the themes in a Letter From Birmingham Jail, or with an essay in general, the experts at Studyfy have the experience to help you in any way you need.

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