Letter From Birmingham Jail- Analysis

Published April 15, 2012 by phoenixswritings

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As civil rights movement strikes the nation, Black Americans are the victims of racial injustice and racial discrimination. They have practiced several demonstrations and have used many strategies to gain their equal rights but none of them has worked. As a matter of fact, one of its leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested for leading demonstrations in Alabama. While in jail, King wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as a way to justify the public demonstrations and explain to the eight clergymen who objected to his actions his goal and  hopes for the future. King uses nonviolent peace talk as his primary strategy to achieve the goal of gaining equality. And throughout the letter, King defines nonviolence as he imagines the future without violence. And to amplify the power of nonviolence and his strong belief in nonviolence, King uses pathos and touching personal stories as outlets to evoke readers’ sympathies and empathies towards their struggles as they fight to gain their equal rights and justice.


First of all, King describes nonviolence as his main strategy to combat the existing social injustice for black Americans. It basically consists of four steps, “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (431). The idea behind this strategy is that it creates a rational working instruction for him and his fellow protestors to follow along in the process of gaining racial equality. It smartly prevents his fellow protestors from doing something irrational or provocative individually and thus endanger their lives as well as their status quo in southern states as a whole. 

In this letter, King primarily focuses on direct action among all four steps because the previous three steps unfortunately have failed and left him and his fellow protestors with no alternatives. First, injustices have been found existed because black people are treated poorly and  brutally in the southern cities, especially in Birmingham. He says “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation” (431). Thorough segregation and unsolved bombings are the examples that justifies how unfairly white people treat black people in Birmingham. Their annoyance, ignorance and most importantly discrimination towards black people are clearly shown in their behaviors. Therefore justice does not exist whatsoever. Then when the black people try to seek peaceful negotiation with the “city fathers” (431) regarding the unjustified respondence and treatment from white people in general, they are refused to be engaged in the negotiation by the “city fathers”. With slight hopes in them, they keep seeking negotiations. Although one time they are promised by merchants to remove demeaning racial signs, weeks and months after all they get is a broken promise. With all these difficulties they have encountered, they still hide their anger and hatred by having a series of workshops on nonviolence and endurance. Despite all their efforts, they do not see any progress. As a result, they decide to begin direct-action as a more effective way to change the social status quo.

Although practicing direct action, King still wants to keep it nonviolent. He writes, “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” (432). Here King makes a clarification that the name “direct action” is in theory a more intensive and effective way to negotiate because of the unbearable situation he and his fellow black Americans are currently in. Therefore, it should only magnify and dramatize the problem without provoking any violent behavior. Later he says “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (432). He emphasizes the nonviolence that he believes in and hopes to achieve along the way, and direct action which he eagerly wants to implement. Like he has said, there needs a change for loving and just relationship between white Americans and black Americans to grow. In addition, to keep making the point of the importance of nonviolent direct action during this special period for black Americans, he continues his thought: “so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise form the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (432). Here by choosing more sensitive words like “majestic,” “understanding” and “brotherhood,” King uses pathos to provoke empathy from other people. He connects nonviolence with the rise of men in order to promote a higher and more divine level of human spirit where there will be free of prejudice and discrimination. He also magnify the importance of nonviolent direct action as a way to negotiate. King explains his rationale on the need for direct action and emphasize the role of nonviolence as to detangle misconceptions that direct action seems to bring. 

There are two opposing sides among black people. One side is complacency toward the status quo and the other is complete hatred towards it. King expresses his idea: “I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle” (437). Here King claims that there are better ways to protest, not just by using anger and violence. His way of protest is to show his love and his concern towards the nation and the people of all races rather than either being silent about the unbearable situation or being full of hatred demanding and crying for equal rights. And as he later says, the black Americans’ destiny is tied up with the nation’s destiny. He connects with all black Americans across the nation to express the love and disappointment he has living in this unjust place. In addition, he says that “nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle,” implying that his belief in nonviolence keeps him sane and helps him endure the difficulties he is experiencing right now. He respects nonviolence and he again uses pathos to evoke sympathy and empathy from other people, in this case the white people. 

Due to resultless protests over long time span, King expresses his understanding towards it while justifying the potential aggressive behaviors of his fellow protestors. More importantly, King presents his strong faith in nonviolence to his frustrated fellow protestors: “If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action” (440). Despite the frustration and exhaustion he has had from demonstrations and protests, King holds his anger back and makes it an outlet for more determined nonviolent direct action. He does not advocate for his people to express their anger randomly and individually, but rather he asks the people to express their true feelings together as a group and make other people hear them.

Throughout this letter, King expresses his belief in nonviolence and promotes nonviolent direct actions. Many times, Kings uses his personal stories and stories that has happened in his people’s lives as pathos to evoke readers’ sympathies and empathies. He makes this letter more heartfelt and more real because of his nonviolent strategy under all the pressure he and his fellow black Americans have during that tough period. Despite all the hardships they have encountered, King always holds his belief in nonviolence strong and constantly reminds his people to be rational and stay rational.    



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