“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by Martin Luther King, is an appeal to eight Southern white clergymen explaining why it was necessary for antisegregationists to move forward with civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter presents logical reasoning behind the nonviolent protest and condemns moderates who disagreed with injustices against blacks but refused to take decisive action to encourage social change.
After his arrest, Martin Luther King wrote the letter in response to a public statement issued by white clergymen, who counseled civil rights activists to be patient while praising authorities after they violently broke up the demonstration. Throughout his letter, King asks readers to consider the perspectives of influential religious, historical and cultural figures, such as Jesus, Thomas Jefferson, Socrates and the Pilgrims. He emphasizes the fact that the black struggle for freedom mirrored the libertarian goals of many highly respected predecessors.
King frequently calls the religious values of his readers into question, reminding them that belief in brotherly love and morality should overcome unjust law. He also rejects the plea for patience, as the privileged had no incentive to surrender their superior social status and could not sympathize with the oppressed. King explains that the public’s persistent refusal to acknowledge brutal injustices made it vital for blacks to use disruptive nonviolent acts to make civil rights reform a priority. He also praises white activists who were willing to alienate themselves from society and suffer abuses to support antisegregationism.