In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. presents the body as the field of battle for civil rights. He first calls attention to the physical act of protest, noting that he and other leaders helped prepare protesters for direct action by asking “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” For most of the men and women involved in these protests, this is not a war of words but an actual physical battle, in which bodily harm is the most likely outcome. King then complicates this metaphor, citing the spiritual relationship between body and soul: he condemns some Church leaders for making a “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” To King, the body houses the soul, and any physical harm that comes to the protesters also brings about moral and spiritual damage. He discusses the image of the Christian church as the body of Christ, but laments the fact that many Christians “have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” These literal and metaphorical bodies—the bodies of the protesters, the African American community as a social body, and the spiritual body of the church—all feel the damage brought about by the racist segregation that permeated the South.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Bodies appears in Letter from Birmingham Jail. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
...out, however, that there have been some exceptional allies, who have used their words and bodies to show their commitment to racial equality. He also commends one of the eight white... (full context)