In his letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to criticism from eight Alabama clergymen; directing himself to them as a fellow Christian, he defends the Birmingham protests and his desegregationalist agenda by appealing to their Christian values and sense of morality. Of all of King’s rhetorical strategies, this may be the strongest and most personal for him, as King sees racial equality not just as a political issue, but a moral and religious one as well.
First, King establishes his credentials as a fellow clergyman, which allows him to speak directly to his critics not as an African American political protester, but as a colleague and brother. He portrays himself as a man who is deeply loyal to the Christian church, and whose actions stem from that religious connection. He notes that he loves the church: “How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers.” This positioning is essential to King’s overall argument, establishing him as a religious authority with the power to engage in dialogue with the white clergymen who have criticized his actions.
King also distinguishes his movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from other desegregationist movements led by blacks “who have absolutely repudiated Christianity,” such as the Nation of Islam. Again, this helps King to portray himself as a Christian leader seeking racial equality, rather than simply as a racial agitator. Near the end of his letter, King offers an olive branch to his critics, reminding them that they share a religious vocation and beliefs regardless of their political leanings. He expresses his hope that he may meet his critics someday, “not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” This helps King to close his letter on a positive and peaceful note, reminding his critics that they are Christians first and foremost.
In response to his critics’ portrayal of the Birmingham protesters as troublemakers, King repeatedly draws parallels with early Christians. He reminds his Christian readers that their religious history is full of dissent and rebellion in the name of a higher moral calling; these comparisons also indirectly portray white racists as enemies of Christ, casting shame on their immoral actions. King notes that when “the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’” He uses the same phrase, “outside agitators,” that his critics have used to describe the African American protesters in Birmingham, making it clear that history will be on the African Americans’ side as well.
King goes on to compare the protesters to the prophets of the eighth century B.C. and the Apostle Paul, noting that they too traveled out of their way to spread the gospel, just as King and his fellow protesters are spreading the word of racial equality. Responding to his critics’ vilification of his civil disobedience, he references “the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar” as another form of rebellion that helped build the early Christian church. These biblical references support King’s overall argument that while his protests may be illegal in the eyes of the law, they will eventually be revealed as morally appropriate and necessary, as were the acts of disobedience of the early Christians. Similarly, King uses Christian theology to challenge segregation on moral grounds, arguing that its legality does not make it any less sinful. Referencing the Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, King argues that “sin is separation,” and that segregation is an expression of that sinful separation, and thus morally wrong.
Once King has established his own religious authority in his letter, he moves on to question the morality of the white Christian church with regard to its stance on segregation and racist social and economic policies. He expresses disappointment with an establishment that he once believed in, and especially with the leadership of the church in the South, who should be responding to a higher calling. King points to the opponents of racial equality like the eight clergymen who criticized the protests in the first place, writing that they have refused to understand the movement and have misrepresented leaders like King. However, he also calls out moderate Christians who “have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” As an overarching theme in his letter, King condemns the silence of those who have the power to enact change, and especially those whose religious values would require them to speak up.
King expects more of the church, an institution that he believes should be an agent for social transformation. He strongly disagrees with religious leaders who distance themselves from social issues, calling the white Christian church “an archdefender of the status quo.” He questions whether or not organized religion is in a position to save the nation and world if white religious leaders are afraid to step up and protest injustice when they see it. King references a letter he received from a white Christian leader in Texas, who advised the protesters to slow down and wait passively for equal rights, which would happen in their own time, as the teachings of Christ come to earth. King’s response to this argument is that progress does not happen without the “tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God,” and that Christians must make social change a priority as part of their moral values.
As a celebrated leader of the Christian church, Martin Luther King, Jr. is able to raise the question of civil rights to a level of moral and religious imperative. His letter provides his critics with a reading of the Bible as a history of rebellion, social change, and obedience to a higher moral calling, and calls on the contemporary church to continue that tradition by supporting racial equality.
Christianity and Morality ThemeTracker
Christianity and Morality Quotes in Letter from Birmingham Jail
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
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.”
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.
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.