Letter From a Birmingham Jail

While participating in nonviolent demonstrations for racial equality in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed for eight days. During this time, eight clergymen published an open letter to Martin Luther King Jr. accusing him of participating in impulsive and misguided nonviolent demonstrations against racial segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," responding to the clergyman using a respectful and assertive tone with the purpose of defending himself. Known for his eloquent words, insistence on peaceful protests, and persuasive speeches that helped frame the American consciousness, Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in the movement to end racial discrimination and segregation.

Letter From a Birmingham Jail Letter From a Birmingham Jail

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Table of contents

    Purpose of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

    The purpose of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. was to respond to the clergymen’s accusations in their open letter to him. King Jr. was originally arrested for marching in an anti-segregation march and peacefully protesting on grounds where he did not have a parade permit. People he had initially depended on for support betrayed him by writing an open letter condemning his actions.

    The clergymen's letter, known as “A Call for Unity” (1963) or “Statement by Alabama Clergymen,” urged Black Americans to end civil rights demonstrations in Alabama under the claim that such actions would stunt legal progress for racial equality.

    Throughout "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King clearly explained his actions to those urging him to call off the demonstrations he supported. He directly responded to critics who believed he and other Black Americans should wait for federal, state, and local governments to make changes.

    Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Image of Martin Luther King Jr., StudySmarterFig. 1 - Martin Luther King Jr. was a talented speaker and engaged his audience in many ways.

    "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" summary

    The following summarizes the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was written while Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail in Alabama. He starts by addressing the clergymen and sets a respectful precedent. He explains that he is in Birmingham to help Black Americans "because injustice is here."

    The clergymen's open letter to King specified a list of criticisms defending their argument that civil rights demonstrations should end. King Jr. used these points to create the foundation of his response by meticulously addressing and countering them. The fundamental criticisms of King Jr. addressed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are:

    • King is an outsider interfering with Birmingham.

    • Public demonstrations are an inappropriate way to address his concerns.

    • Negotiations should be preferred over actions.

    • King Jr.’s actions break laws.

    • The Black American community should show more patience.

    • King Jr. is provoking violence through acts of extremism.

    • The fight should be addressed in the courts.

    King responds by addressing the accusation that he is an “outsider.” He then explains the value behind his campaign for equality based on direct action and protests rather than going through the court system. He argues that the real issue is racial injustice and that the current laws maintaining segregation are unjust; the only way to rectify injustice is through direct and immediate action.

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail, A photo of segregated water coolers, StudySmarterFig. 2 - King Jr. was adamantly against anyone being complicit with segregation.

    He condemns people who are complicit with the unjust laws and sit by without doing anything. He specifically calls out white moderates and claims they are worse than the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councillor because they are "more devoted to order than to justice." He also calls out the white church and explains his disappointment in their weak and uncertain convictions that maintain the status quote of discrimination and violence.

    Martin Luther King Jr. ends his letter on a positive note by praising the real heroes who fight every day for equality.

    Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter was written on small pieces of paper, sometimes jailhouse toilet tissue, and smuggled out in pieces by those he trusted.

    Tone of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

    In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. maintained a respectful, assertive, and persuasive tone throughout. His controlled use of diction and persuasive techniques appealed to the audience’s intelligence and emotions.

    Diction: the specific word choice selected by the author to communicate a specific attitude or tone.

    King is very assertive in his letter. He uses powerful language that doesn't shy away from revealing the true hardships Black Americans were experiencing due to racial segregation. He uses the following underlined action verbs with negative implications to convey what Black Americans have been dealing with. By using assertive diction like these action verbs, it motivates the reader to join him in the battle against injustice.

    Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority."

    Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of persuasive techniques, which were created by Aristotle in 350 BC. He uses these techniques throughout his letter to create a convincing tone.

    Persuasive techniques: the techniques a writer or speaker employs to persuade the audience. They rely on logic, emotions, and the character of the speaker. They are also called persuasive appeals.

    There are three persuasive techniques you should be aware of:

    1. Logos: a logical appeal. A logical appeal or argument depends on reasoning and evidence and appeals to the audience’s intellect.
    2. Pathos: an emotional appeal. An emotional appeal depends on the connection to the audience’s emotions. When using pathos in writing or speaking, the aim is to appeal to needs that all humans can relate to or have in common.
    3. Ethos: an appeal to the writer or speaker's character. It depends on the person delivering the argument and how the speaker conveys their good character and credibility on the topic.

    There are many instances of each persuasive technique in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," but some brief examples are provided here and in the analysis.

    King used logos to prove that there was evidence of unfair treatment towards Black Americans. He cited many examples and then said, "There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts." By using concrete proof that a certain portion of the population is subjected to unfair treatment and violence, he convinces his audience that this needs to change.

    King used pathos to help his audience see the perspective of Black Americans. He appealed to his audience's emotions by using concrete imagery that tugs at the heartstrings. In one image, he described "angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes." This visual image of people being attacked humanizes the people that have been subjugated to terror. King deliberately chose striking images like this one to make his audience emotional and light a fire under them to make changes happen.

    Martin Luther King Jr. used ethos by convincing his audience that he was an expert on the topic of civil rights. He begins the letter by establishing who he is and how he ended up in jail. He says, "So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here." The mention of his staff shows that King had a history of organizing for civil rights and that he was respected by the people he worked alongside. By referring to his team, he showed his solid character and used it as a persuasive tool. His thorough understanding of the topic proves that he had society's best interests in mind.

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Lincoln Memorial, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Martin Luther King Jr.'s words were so influential they were engraved at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

    “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” analysis

    Martin Luther King Jr. created one of the most effective and important documents of the civil rights era from the confines of a jail cell. In it, he implements all three persuasive appeals to reach his audience and counter his critics: logos, pathos, and ethos.


    A logical appeal depends on rational thought and concrete evidence. Logical arguments often use deductive reasoning, factual evidence, tradition or precedent, research, and authority. Let's examine this excerpt piece by piece. King Jr. says,

    You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern."

    In this excerpt, King Jr. begins by using a concession.

    Concession: an expression of concern for the disagreeing audience. It overcomes the opposition’s resistance and establishes the writer or speaker as logical, understanding, and concerned.

    In his concession, he acknowledges his respect for opposing views and his ability to recognize the validity of other opinions. It is disarming and takes away the opposition’s primary source of debate by addressing it immediately.

    King then responds to this concession:

    Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws."

    He then completes the counterargument by providing a refutation.

    Counterargument: a persuasive technique comprising of a concession and refutation.

    Refutation: argues against the opposition’s perspective and proves it erroneous, wrong, or false in some way.

    King Jr. refutes the central argument that he is willing to “break laws” by identifying that some laws are just while others are unjust.

    He elaborates:

    A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality."

    By establishing a clear delineation between just laws that uplift “human personality” and the law of segregation which “degrades,” King Jr. asserts that it is “out of harmony with the moral law.” His logical explanation as to why he is participating in protests is convincing to his audience.


    Pathos, an emotional appeal, relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the speaker or writer and the subject matter. It often involves connecting and understanding humankind’s physical, psychological, or social needs.

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail, A crowd, StudySmarterFig. 4 - It is necessary to appeal to as many people as possible while making claims.

    King Jr. uses emotional appeals in the following excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We will examine it piece by piece.

    Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

    King starts by using a metaphor to connect with his audience and express the pain of segregation.

    Metaphor: a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things or ideas without using the words “like” or “as.” It often draws a comparison between one concrete and tangible object or experience to describe a more abstract emotion or idea.

    The line “the stinging darts of segregation” expresses that the mental, emotional, and social damages of segregation are not merely skin deep and stick to someone's psyche.

    King continues:

    But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society..."

    He describes poverty as an “airtight cage” in the middle of an “affluent society.” These descriptive comparisons help contextualize the pain and insult of segregation.

    ...when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky."

    He further humanizes the damages of racial segregation by providing a concrete example of his daughter’s tears and the “clouds of inferiority...in her little mental sky.” The clouds block what would otherwise be an innocent girl and her self-esteem, making her believe the false narrative that she is less-than others simply because of the shade of her skin.

    All of these examples appeal to the audience's emotions.


    An argument using ethos relies on personal integrity, good character, and credibility. Writers or speakers often restate opposing views accurately and fairly, align their ideas with relevant experts on the subject matter, and use a controlled tone to convey respect and level-headedness.

    Martin Luther King Jr. uses ethos in the following excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    I think I should give the reason for my being in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the argument of 'outsiders coming in.' I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Whenever necessary and possible, we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates."

    Martin Luther King Jr. introduces himself and addresses the accusation that he is an outsider. Rather than negate the clergymen’s claim stated in the open letter, he uses the occasion to establish his credibility. He shows his authority by providing background information about himself, including his position as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

    He continues:

    Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise."

    King establishes his place in Birmingham by proving his organizational ties and showing credibility in keeping his “promise” to help an affiliate “engage in a nonviolent direct action program.” He reaches his audience by showing that he is merely acting responsibly by coming to Birmingham. He uses his character to counter his critics' claims that he doesn't belong there.

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail, MLK statue, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Martin Luther King Jr. now has a statue in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, because of his powerful words and persuasive techniques.

    “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” quotes

    Martin Luther King Jr. uses alliteration and imagery to establish his argument further and add substance to his words. These techniques, coupled with the persuasive appeals, make his letter particularly powerful and have cemented his words as some of the most influential in history.


    Martin Luther King Jr. was a master at using sound devices like alliteration, perhaps because of his religious background, to add emphasis and detail.

    Alliteration: the repetition of the consonant sound, typically at the start of words, near one another in poetry and prose. It gives the language a cadence and draws attention to important ideas.

    Here is an example of alliteration in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    "... but we still creep at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee…"

    The repetition of the hard c sound emphasizes the words “creep” and “cup of coffee." The stressed words here were chosen to show that civil progress is happening casually, as creeping and having a cup of coffee are not quick movements. By using the hard c sound it accentuates the idea that Black Americans struggle for basic rights while other individuals have the privilege of being leisurely about progress.


    King Jr. also uses imagery to evoke pity and empathy from even the toughest critics.

    Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to any of the five senses. Visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight.

    Using strong visual imagery, King Jr. elicits compassion from his audience.

    … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments” when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness' - then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

    King Jr. uses active verbs and strong visual imagery like “harried,” “haunted,” and “living constantly at tiptoe stance” to show how uneasy and discomforting it is to be a Black American living in an oppressive society.

    Letter From a Birmingham Jail - Key takeaways

    • The "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" was written by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 while he was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama.
    • The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a response to an open letter written by eight clergymen in Birmingham criticizing the actions and peaceful protests of Martin Luther King Jr.
    • King Jr. used the points outlined in the letter to create the foundation of his response and to meticulously address and counter their assertions.
    • King Jr. implements all three persuasive appeals, ethos, pathos, and logos, to reach his audience and counter his critics.
    • Martin Luther King Jr. uses alliteration and imagery to further establish his argument and add substance to his words.
    Letter From a Birmingham Jail Letter From a Birmingham Jail
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Letter From a Birmingham Jail

    What was the main point of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

    The central argument Martin Luther King Jr. presents is that people have a moral obligation to challenge unjust laws that are oppressive and damaging to individuals and society.

    What is the purpose of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

    Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to defend the need for his peaceful protests and direct action, rather than waiting for the fight for civil rights to be addressed in courts.

    Who wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"?

    “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

    What is the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" about?

    “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King Jr.’s counterargument to those who criticized his actions, called him an outsider in Birmingham, accused him of illegal activity, and asserted that his actions incited violence.

    Who is the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" addressed to?

    The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a response to an open letter written by eight clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, who criticized the actions and peaceful protests of Martin Luther King Jr.

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