Fighting Inequality with the Past: A Look into “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Related Historical Documents

In his letter to the clergymen, Dr. Martin Luther King utilizes many of the intellectual concepts that President Thomas Jefferson employed in the writing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. While highlighting Jefferson’s more idealistic approach, Dr. King continuously references his own religious background in order to establish an emotional and fundamental connection with the clergymen. Although Jefferson took a much less up-front approach when incorporating religion into his compositions and doctrines than Dr. King, King’s ideas of unity and reason through God closely resemble those of President Abraham Lincoln, and more specifically in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. By harmonizing the approach of the two Presidents, Dr. King composes a rather compelling letter from his jail cell.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence asserts that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” [1] As the dawn of an independent United States approached, those living in the colonies were treated with little respect from their British rulers. This led Jefferson to construct a document in which the rights and safety of the people of the new nation rested firmly in the highest echelon of priority. While Jefferson asserts that all men are created equal, for King’s purposes, the Jefferson’s idea of constituents challenging the government is more central. All men are created equally, but recognizing and understanding the differences in order to achieve equality was King’s goal. After the clergymen reprimanded Dr. King and his followers for conducting “unwise and untimely” protests, he replied “that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts.” [2] Dr. King felt that the old and new administrations in Birmingham turned their backs on their promises to desegregate some of the institutions in the city. When no results came to fruition, Dr. King, much like Jefferson, took action and fought for the safety and happiness of his people.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address highlights that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” [3]. This reference alludes to the Lincoln’s idea that God brought woe unto the United States in the form of the Civil War as a punishment for slavery. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King argues that unjust laws must be disobeyed. He also quotes Saint Augustine by stating “an unjust law is no law at all”. While it may be aloof to directly compare Lincoln’s idea of God to Dr. King himself, the similarities are apparent. Dr. King brought protests to Birmingham as a response to the discourse over racial equality, while God brought about the war as a response to slavery in the States. Each of these events, worldly and otherworldly, emphasize Lincoln’s ideas of religion as a road to equality. In King’s eyes, devotion to God was the key to unity between the races. Lincoln viewed God’s actions as consequences for man’s atrocities, while King viewed God’s actions as rewards for loyalty.

Although many ideological similarities exist between King’s letter and the addresses of the two Presidents, the foundations of them are inherently different. While Jefferson and King composed their publications in order to address some type of inequality, the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to separate the colonists from the British Empire. In contrast, King’s letter was an attempt to help the clergymen understand why King and his followers are protesting in order to subsequently unite the white church and the black church. Furthermore, Lincoln felt that the Civil War was an inevitable response of God (“’Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come.’” [3]), while King felt that trusting in God and living a life of religious introspection would be the key to unlocking the door to unity and equality.

While Dr. King may not have directly quoted or referenced the way Jefferson or Lincoln thought, the similarities between his and their words and actions are evident. King and Jefferson view the rights of man as inalienable and inherent. King and Lincoln view that through God, justice will inevitably be achieved through trust in Him. As racial inequality still presents itself as a hot topic today, it is important to look back on historical texts such as King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and relate our current issues to the issues our country has experienced in the past.





We Are in This Together: Comparing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “Sonny’s Blues”

Martin Luther King and James Baldwin lived in the era of racial inequality and the civil rights movement, an era when African-Americans were still fighting to find a place in society. In 1963, King wrote a famous letter from jail while in 1957; Baldwin for his part published a fictional short story capturing this intimidating time period. Together, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrate a common fear of the future of African-Americans in the late 1950s/early 1960s United States. Both men write of struggling and troubled blacks trapped in racially-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and a drug and crime-infested Harlem, New York, respectively, fearing that the status quo may never change. However, King and Baldwin respond to this fear, and they do so by encouraging brotherly love and community fellowship. They suggest that perhaps the best way to fight such fear is to unite and help one another.

King crafted his letter in response to the recent non-violent protest against racial segregation of the government and downtown retailers of Birmingham, Alabama. Although King is concerned with the fight against segregation for much of the letter, he essentially fears most not the ones who segregate, but the ones who do nothing about it – the white moderate. He sees the white moderate as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” (King), because they recognize the injustice, but they are not devoted to it. The white moderate, more specifically, is the clergymen, religious leaders of the church both Christian and Jewish. King sees two faults with the clergyman; (1) they “hide behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (King), and (2) they “admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law” (King). King criticizes the white moderate not only for lack of action, but also for action that reinforces the status quo. If the white moderate indeed prefers negative peace (i.e. lack of tension) than positive peace (i.e. justice), then they are of great threat to the future of African-Americans. King explains that “shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance is far worse than absolute misunderstanding and outright rejection” (King). In other words, King is disappointed with racial segregation and its agents, but even more frustrated with the clergyman who fail their every obligation and go against their every moral for the sake of their own well-being. King fears that this very nonconformity can seriously prevent the end of racial segregation.

King responds to the fear of the white moderate and ultimately racial segregation by urging African-Americans to unite for the common purpose of love and justice. Much of the letter is a call of brotherhood; King defends non-violent protests and vouches for direct action. He also refers to himself as “we,” an indication that King seems to speak for all African-Americans, that is he is the voice that unites all the voices against racial segregation in this one letter. In promoting unity and brotherhood, King also asks African-Americans to spread love and justice, comparing his people to Jesus Christ and Amos. Again, King attempts to create a sense of togetherness, making these associations with key historical figures. By drawing the comparison, King is better able to communicate the idea that African-Americans are a single body working for the same good goal, the goal of love and justice. King not only advocates brotherhood among fellow African-Americans, but also with his “white brothers.” Some such as Ralph McGill, Lilian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden, and Sarah Patton Boyle have written about the struggle, or marched down streets, or even went to jail for the African-American cause. They have “recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for a powerful action to fight segregation” (King). These “white brothers” are another indication that the best way to respond to the fear is to unite, help one another, and together fight for a better future. King concludes his letter hoping that “in some not-too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love ad brotherhood will shine over the nation with all their beauty” (King). The times are hard, but people have the ability to come together and survive.

James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” documents on the drugs, poverty, and oppressive living conditions faced by African-Americans in the late-fifties Harlem. Much like Martin Luther King, Baldwin fears that African-Americans may never see a brighter future, with a place like Harlem. The narrator is perhaps only an exception to what is neighborhood filled with Sonnys. A short passage demonstrates the despair and hopelessness – the darkness – of Harlem:

Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster (Baldwin).

This passage illustrates not only the hostile living conditions of Sonny and the narrator’s childhood, but also the same living conditions of the next generation. Though years have passed, it appears nothing has changed, a new generation of African-Americans are doomed to be in no better Harlem than the one where Sonny and the narrator grew up in. The darkness that is the drugs, crime, poverty and oppression engulfs Harlem with every generation. And even though new housing projects have been constructed, the only thing that is new is their existence and appearance, life conditions remain unchanged. Stealing from stores, recreational sex, and mindless hobbies still dominate the everyday childhood in Harlem. Baldwin tries hard to create this intimidating image of Harlem; poverty, addiction, crime, imprisonment, and very little hope of escape. He clearly fears that African-Americans have no future in Harlem, they are introduce to darkness in childhood, and grew up in darkness for the rest of their lives.

Baldwin responds to the fear of darkness by encouraging brotherly and familial love, and promoting small but meaningful gestures in the community. He believes that African-Americans can survive the difficult times in Harlem and one day live like the narrator if they do it together, helping one another whenever they can. Of course Baldwin’s most prominent example of this in “Sonny’s Blues” is the brotherly love that evolves between Sonny and the narrator. After the narrator’s mother asks him to “hold on to [Sonny]…and do not let [Sonny] fall” (Baldwin), the narrator takes it upon himself to take care of his brother. Initially however, the narrator is unable to do so; while he himself escapes the drugs and poverty of the streets and become a teacher, he fails to make sure Sonny follows. Sonny gets addicted to heroin, goes to jail, and the relationship with his brother for most of the story is complicated and difficult. By the end of the story, the narrator finally becomes the big brother he promised to be, he takes Sonny back home, feeds him, and most importantly gives him a family for the first time in years. Even the fact that he is there to simply listen to Sonny, to hear Sonny express himself is a brotherly gesture Baldwin seeks to encourage. Baldwin uses Sonny and the narrator to demonstrate that brothers can come together to watch and protect one another despite their differences and hard times.

This brotherly love, however, extends beyond Sonny and the narrator. Baldwin also believes that individuals within the community can help and be there for each other. In “Sonny’s Blues,” the adults for example spend their Sunday mornings in church and afternoons having dinner and sharing stories together. The narrator admits that on Sundays “the living room would always be full of church folks and relatives” (Baldwin). This creates a sense of togetherness between the adults, and provides warmth and security for the children. In another examples, the narrator meets one of Sonny’ friends and gives him five dollars (Baldwin). Though the narrator is frustrated with Sonny’s friend at the start, when he is asked for a dollar for the subway fare, the narrator suddenly feels sorry for the man and gives him the money. Otherwise, the narrator admits he “would be crying like a child” (Baldwin). Even Sonny is part of this community fellowship as his music brings people together in Jazz clubs and again builds the sense of unity and love in the community. Also, his music helps everyone listening face their problems more easily because they are doing it together. Ultimately, Baldwin fears the hostile and oppressive living conditions, but he responds to this fear by urging African-Americans to come together and help one another be it family, friends, neighbors or even strangers, so that the drug and poverty-stricken Harlem is that much more bearable.

On the basis of their texts, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin fear that Birmingham, Alabama, and Harlem, New York are doomed to be the sites of racism, segregation, injustice, and oppression to African-Americans in the future. However, despite everything, they believe that African-Americans can survive the tough times f they do it together. Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion found in every human being from King and Baldwin to the African-Americans in Birmingham, Harlem and across the nation. Fear unites every individual in this way, but it is the response to fear that defines these same individuals. King does not call for violence or outright riots, and Baldwin does not complain about the situation, rather they face their fear and they tell us to do it together, side by side. Perhaps it is because individuals like King and Baldwin that African Americans were able to find unity, brotherhood, love, and justice in the most unlikely of times.



Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.”

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Rhetorical Analysis of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

At the peak of the Civil War Movement in America on April 12th, 1963, eight Alabama clergymen made a public statement announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King’s protests in the streets should end because they promote “hatred and violence” (par. 5). The clergymen condemn using nonviolent disobedience to obtain civil rights for the black people in Birmingham and believe that if whites and blacks come together to discuss this issue, there will be a better outcome for everyone. They also believed that Dr. King was just an “outsider” who wanted to stir up trouble in Birmingham (par. 3). During the time that the clergymen released their statement, Dr. Martin Luther King was in a Birmingham jail; arrested for protesting. While in his cell, Dr. King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to inform the clergymen that he had a right to be in Birmingham and there are moral, just, and deserving reasons behind his actions. He uses rhetorical devices to persuade not only them, but the rest of the American people through the use of ethos (credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (reason). By using these various devices, Dr. King is able to effectively convey his letter to his audience and gain the support needed for the Civil War Movement.

During the 1960s in America, Dr. King served as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC, which operates in every southern state with its headquarters residing in Atlanta, Georgia, was formed to help push the abolishment of segregation and to end the oppression of blacks using nonviolent tactics. There are 85 affiliated organizations across the south and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Dr. King along with the rest of the SCLC decided to come to Birmingham and assist ACMHR once a group member asked them to help engage in a nonviolent direct action program if necessary. Birmingham especially needed a call to action during this time since there was a strong prevalence of the KKK and brutality from the police officers and other law officials. Dr. King referred to Birmingham as “America’s worst city for racism” and made it his goal to bring justice and peace to all of its people, not only for the state but for the rest of the country.

In order to strengthen his argument and increase his credibility, Dr. King uses various forms of rhetorical devices in his letter. He uses parallelism when he says, “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 to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (383). The repeated use of “when you” emphasizes the countless ways blacks have been mistreated. The use of parallelism really etches into the audience’s mind the seemingly never-ending hardships blacks face and the repetition makes it seem like a regular routine they endure. Dr. King also includes metaphors in his letter such as when he says he sees “twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” (383). This metaphor paints a visual picture in the audience’s mind of the oppression they go through that seems to have no door to escape. They are forced to look at the privileges and freedoms that the white people in their community have, and there is no way for them to achieve it. Also, by saying they are confined in an airtight cage, it dehumanizes the blacks and subjects them to animals without any rights. Since Dr. King used multiple rhetorical devices in his letter, the audience views his argument as more credible since he has personal experience with seeing the injustice blacks endure. By his use of parallelism and metaphors, the audience has a better understanding of Dr. King’s argument and therefore can sympathize with him and support his ultimate goal.

Dr. King is also able to grasp the reader’s attention and allow them to sympathize with what black people have endured throughout America with the use of pathos. By vividly describing the violence, injustice, and brutality Dr. King has witnessed or experienced, the audience is able to better understand the issue at hand and therefore will more likely side with his standpoints and actions as opposed to the clergymen. In response to the clergymen’s opinion that the Birmingham police are keeping order and preventing violence, Dr. King says, “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the policemen if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.” it clearly broadcasts the image in the reader’s mind (391). Using the words “sinking their teeth”, “unarmed”, and “nonviolent” causes the audience to truly see the inhumane brutality behind the police’s actions towards people who are peacefully protesting. The people are able to see that while the police claim they are providing protection for the community, they are actually only doing harm. Dr. King also tells his audience that discrimination and segregation affects everyone when he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (380). This shows that everyone, regardless of race, is affected by the injustice occurring in the 1960s. If a group of people is oppressed, the rest of the population cannot progress or succeed. Knowing this, the audience will be more inclined to contribute to the social change. Dr. King puts the effect of segregation and racism on society as a whole into perspective and the readers are now able to see this barrier that keeps society from advancing too. From his use of pathos, the reader is able to better agree with the point being made and better able to sympathize with Dr. King and the millions of other people that experience this injustice. If Dr. King hadn’t chosen phrases and sentences that appeal to the reader’s emotions, he wouldn’t have received such strong support and understanding behind his actions and everyone else’s during the Civil Rights Movement. The audience was therefore more inclined to sympathize with the blacks and the treatment they have received than the clergymen and the government officials.

To effectively have the clergymen and the rest of the American people believe and side with his arguments, Dr. King must have sufficient facts and reason. In order to do this, he uses logos when he says, “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.” (381). By providing his audience with unarguable facts that provide evidence of the excessive violence in Birmingham, Dr. King not only improves his credibility and trust, but enhances his overall argument.

Dr. Martin Luther King was an extremely prominent and influential member of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. He was able to effectively show the American people the injustices the black community faced, why nonviolent protests were crucial to the movement, and what needed to be changed to bring equality and peace to America. Without his use of rhetorical devices, his audience would not be able to truly grasp the argument he was conveying, thus the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t be as successful and monumental as it ended up being. Using ethos, pathos, and logos made his letter more credible, logical, and better to understand and sympathize with. If Dr. King had not written such a strong and effective letter from the use of rhetorical devices, the strength of the Civil Rights Movement uproar and momentum that it is remembered today would be diminished.

A Question of Appeal: Rhetorical Analysis of Malcolm X and MLK

As outspoken leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. urged black Americans to pursue equality with uncompromising dignity; however, each held a distinct opinion about the proper methods and the purpose of such action. In his impassioned speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” X directly addresses the listener, advocating for the “reciprocation” of violence in the name of equality and self-respect. Decrying the American government, he makes clear his emphatic stance against the brutality of the white establishment. Conversely, in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he exalts the instances of civil disobedience carried out by nonviolent protestors, maintaining that when preexisting tension is brought to light, the resulting outcry will lead to widespread change. King’s letter employs a persistent appeal to mainstream Christian, American values, a strict adherence to nonviolence, and a readiness to work within established systems. This consideration of deep-seated social mores widens the accessibility of his arguments and thus makes his rhetorical stance more effective than X’s more revolutionary ideology.

X’s speech seeks to empathize with politically disillusioned African Americans and offer the black nationalist perspective as a solution to their discontent. “All of us have suffered here, in this country” he proclaims, citing “political oppression…, economic exploitation…, and social degradation at the hands of the white man.” Then, alluding to the upcoming election cycle, he further decries the “white political crooks [who] will be right back in your and my community,” whose “treachery” and “false promises” have frustrated black citizens, creating a cynical minority population which “just doesn’t intend to turn the other cheek any longer.” This is the outset of X’s speech, and he phrases it deliberately, creating an us-vs-them narrative and being sure to align himself with the “us”—the audience, members of “your and my community.” He lets the listener know that he shares his disdain of the racist national establishment:

“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism…So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system…I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

X absolutely denounces any respect for the idealized vision of America, and he channels this contempt into an urge to take a stand. “These 22 million victims are waking up…” he says, “We want freedom now, but we’re not going to get it saying ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We’ve got to fight until we overcome.” The fight referenced here is, to X, quite literally a battle for freedom.

X’s speech is punctuated with repetition of the phrase, “the ballot or the bullet,” reinforcing the idea that when denied basic human rights, a person is entitled, if not obligated, to physically defend himself and reciprocate the violence of others. When kept voiceless and unrepresented in government, he must protect his freedoms in other ways. “If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death.” He is arguing that the systems already in place are not conducive to the attainment of freedom for black people. If real, tangible change is to occur, it must be through force because America’s “so-called democracy” certainly will not allow it.

Seeking the support of his audience, X paints this pointedly radical, dissident stance as mainstream:

“The political philosophy of black nationalism is being taught in the Christian church…in the NAACP…in CORE meetings…in SNCC meetings…in Muslim meetings…where nothing but atheists and agnostics come together. It’s being taught everywhere.”

He not only aligns his views with what is most popular, but also extends his persuasive effort beyond what is traditionally American, contrasting his viewpoint with the markedly biblical rationale of Martin Luther King.

Dr. King cannot be called a conservative thinker; he sees the injustices in America and implores his audience to take action. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he proclaims, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He recognizes the plight of black Americans and empathizes with their desire to make a change. “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,” he remarks, “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Clearly, he does not try to downplay the significance of the crime of segregation or the moral imperative of protests. However, he acknowledges that the solution to this institutional problem must itself take place within the systems of power that control American policy.

King has faith that the American people are capable of exacting change when confronted with the blatant truth of systematic oppression, and that swaying the “national opinion” can be a dramatic accomplishment. Distancing his movement from any intentional acts of violence, he explains, “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.” His goal is not immediate retribution but a chance to constructively interact with the American institutions that perpetuate racial discrimination. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” he writes, implying that positive change will come if the issue is brought to the attention of the American public. This optimism is a result of a firmly-held belief in the progressive strength of American democratic values, which he encourages his audience to embrace, stating, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Success will not come through a violent upheaval, but through a coordinated movement within America’s existing channels for change. A reform of the system must occur within the means of the system, King argues, making his stance seem more pragmatic than that of Malcolm X.

Beyond acknowledging the staying power of governmental structures, King uses the widespread influence of American traditions to his rhetorical advantage, constantly aligning his viewpoints with important historical figures and ideals. His justification for civil disobedience leans heavily on elements of Christianity and cites St. Augustine’s statement that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Connecting this religious perspective to the more secular and patriotic, he states:

“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience…It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks…To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”

These stories assure the reader that King’s movement is on the right side of history. By placing civil rights activists alongside philosophers and revolutionaries, he builds enthusiasm and borrows credibility. Finally, to conclude his letter, he asserts:

“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 what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

This impactful summation brings together the powerful ideas King uses to support his viewpoint. His love for America as a nation is evidenced by the mention of its most sacred core values, founding principles, and spiritual heritage, and this pro-American perspective makes it easier for those who are not quite so cynical about the nation’s future to receive King’s argument.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, with justice and righteousness in mind, called upon Americans to transform their racially divided nation. Each knew the burden faced by black Americans in the era of illegal segregation and made clear their intentions to overcome these hardships. King’s perspective, no more apologetic or tolerant of racism, aligned with the more pervasive social establishments of the time and was thus more capable of attracting a wider base of support, and the American Civil Rights Movement is now very strongly associated with his philosophy of nonviolent protest.