Letter from Birmingham Jail

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Character Analysis

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, a leader of the Civil Rights movement, and the author of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Responding to an open letter known as “A Call for Unity,” written by eight white clergymen, King answers their criticism of his racial activism and defends civil disobedience as necessary in the face of the injustice African Americans experienced at the time. In the letter, King refers to himself as “the son, the grandson, and the greatgrandson of preachers,” and contextualizes his protest within the history of Christianity, noting that the early Christians practiced civil disobedience as well and were “willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.” King’s vast biblical knowledge and rhetorical skills are clear in this letter: despite being written in the margins of a newspaper in a Birmingham jail cell, King’s letter is one of the most important works of the Civil Rights Era.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Letter from Birmingham Jail quotes below are all either spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. or refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Perfection Learning edition of Letter from Birmingham Jail published in 2007.
Letter from Birmingham Jail Quotes

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Related Symbols: Apostle Paul
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

…the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit ins and freedom rides.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Related Symbols: Apostle Paul
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.

Related Characters: Martin Luther King, Jr. (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:
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Letter from Birmingham Jail PDF

Martin Luther King, Jr. Character Timeline in Letter from Birmingham Jail

The timeline below shows where the character Martin Luther King, Jr. appears in Letter from Birmingham Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Christianity and Morality Theme Icon
Justice  Theme Icon
Martin Luther King, Jr. directs his letter to the eight white clergymen who publicly condemned his actions in... (full context)
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King begins his response by addressing his critics’ concerns about the presence of “outsiders,” referring indirectly... (full context)
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In addition, King is also in Birmingham because he feels compelled to respond to injustice wherever he finds... (full context)
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According to King, the systemic racism in Birmingham has left the African American community with no alternative to... (full context)
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...American community has attempted to negotiate with Birmingham community leaders, but had their hopes dashed. King cites the local merchants’ promise to remove their “humiliating racial signs” that established and supported... (full context)
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King clarifies that the goal of the protests was to force the situation, and “to create... (full context)
Racism  Theme Icon
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...untimely, and suggested that the protesters wait for desegregation to happen on its own schedule. King replies that they have waited 340 years for their “constitutional and God-given rights,” and that... (full context)
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To give his readers an idea of the racial injustice African Americans have experienced, King offers a list of injustices. He presents examples of lynchings and extreme police brutality, the... (full context)
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King moves on to discuss the fact that he and the other protesters are breaking laws,... (full context)
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King establishes the grounds for deeming a law unjust, focusing specifically on whether or not the... (full context)
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Most importantly, King notes that he and his fellow protesters are willing to accept the punishment for breaking... (full context)
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King then offers his own criticisms, condemning the white moderate for his passive acceptance of racial... (full context)
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To illustrate the white moderate perspective, King refers to a letter he received from a white man from Texas, who claimed that... (full context)
Racism  Theme Icon
Extremism vs. Moderation Theme Icon
Justice  Theme Icon
King then addresses the description of the protests as extreme, arguing that he and the SCLC... (full context)
Racism  Theme Icon
Extremism vs. Moderation Theme Icon
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...African Americans do not have the opportunity to take action and participate in nonviolent protest, King argues, they will find refuge in the more extreme groups. He asks his critics to... (full context)
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King then changes his mind about the term extremist, embracing the idea within the context of... (full context)
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King returns to his condemnation of white moderates, lamenting the fact that they have not been... (full context)
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With these notable exceptions, King comments, he is disappointed with the white church. He believed that as Christians, they would... (full context)
Racism  Theme Icon
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...contemporary church, which he calls “an archdefender of the status quo.” If this continues, warns King, the church will lose the loyalty of millions and lose its relevance in the lives... (full context)
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King again praises those who have taken the risk and joined the cause of racial equality,... (full context)
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In a final point before closing his letter, King notes that white leaders have commended the police for their work maintaining order and preventing... (full context)
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Yet even when the police have conducted themselves nonviolently in public, King argues that this is not worthy of praise, either. Regardless of their conduct, the police... (full context)
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King expresses his wish that these same leaders had commended the protesters in Birmingham for their... (full context)
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King finishes his letter with a few final notes. First, he apologizes for the length of... (full context)