Letter from Birmingham Jail

by

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Apostle Paul Symbol Analysis

Apostle Paul Symbol Icon

Of all the biblical references that Martin Luther King, Jr. makes in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the most powerful is his use of the Apostle Paul as a kind of spiritual symbol for his work in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His critics have described him as an “outsider” who has come to Birmingham to make trouble with his civil rights protests; in response, King draws a parallel with the Apostle Paul, noting that he too was obliged to travel beyond his homeland to enlighten others. He models himself after the Apostle, spreading an unpopular truth: just as Paul “carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” His critics also call King an extremist, and again he responds with the image of Paul, whom he calls “an extremist for the Christian gospel.” This comparison is personally meaningful for King—he clearly sees the Apostle Paul as a guiding spirit—but it is also a way of equating the fight for racial equality with the work of spreading the word of Jesus Christ, and segregation laws throughout the South with “certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.” By placing the protesters in such a biblical context, he tries to convince his critics that racial equality, like the Christian gospel, is a morally superior philosophy, despite being preached by outsiders and extremists.

Apostle Paul Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Letter from Birmingham Jail quotes below all refer to the symbol of Apostle Paul. 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:

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:
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Apostle Paul Symbol Timeline in Letter from Birmingham Jail

The timeline below shows where the symbol Apostle Paul appears in Letter from Birmingham Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Racism  Theme Icon
Christianity and Morality Theme Icon
Justice  Theme Icon
...finds it. He compares his work to that of the early Christians, especially the Apostle Paul, who traveled beyond his homeland to spread the Christian gospel. Finally, he questions the idea... (full context)
Christianity and Morality Theme Icon
Extremism vs. Moderation Theme Icon
...context of Christianity and American history. He notes that Jesus was an extremist for love, Paul for the Christian gospel, and Martin Luther for Reformation. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson... (full context)