Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Prison: The Epicenter of a Movement

June 21, 2021
Dr. Martin Luther King leaning on a podium

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Prison:

The Epicenter of a Movement

(C) 03/2005 Angela K. Mack

The Apostle Paul and his friend Silas praised their God while waiting in a prison cell. “And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.” (Acts 16:26 KJV) Similarly, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter of Epistle” to nine white liberal clergymen who opposed his peaceful demonstration and again, there was an earthquake. This earthquake shook the foundations of segregation and racism in America.Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” contained words that had the power to open the doors for a 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington with 200,000 demonstrators present. In addition, this letter reached the eyes of an American church that needed a serious wake up call. It also reached the ears of the American government resulting in the 1963 Civil Rights Bill. Yes, the words from this prisoner left a lasting imprint on American history.Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. He came from a lineage of clergymen. He was a devout Christian man who had his religious beginnings singing in his father’s church. His mother was a teacher. His mother, a teacher, also comforted him as a child when his childhood friends told him that they could no longer play with him because he was black.

Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a part of the United States that had its Jim Crow laws. Humiliating “WHITES ONLY” signs were posted in many parks, hotels, swimming pools, schools, and restaurants. This had a tremendous impact on Martin Luther King Jr. He later grew up and became a pastor. Shortly after he began his first job as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to get out of the “WHITES ONLY” section of a city bus. Consequently, she was arrested. King encouraged a boycott of the buses and many blacks protested. This event began his activism in the Civil Rights. This same sort of silent protest landed him in jail when, after many attempts at negotiations, Birmingham merchants continued to display their “WHITES ONLY” signs.

Martin Luther King Jr. begins his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, “MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN.” He sets up his discourse giving the clergy a clear understanding of his scope of influence. He sets up his credibility as a leader and demands respect by gently explaining that he is the “president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights”. He then likens his role in the region to the Apostle Paul and declares that he has a “gospel of freedom”. He uses a metaphor that the clergy can clearly understand.

Next, he gives the antithesis, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Using this powerful craft of language, he gives another antithesis, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Unknowingly, Martin Luther King was honing in on his skills as an effective communicator which would later benefit his “I Have a Dream” speech.) Yes, King had a lot of time to formulate his thoughts. He, almost in a humorous tone, mentions later in his letter, “what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?”

Martin Luther King Jr. used his time in prison wisely as did the imprisoned Apostle Paul who wrote many letters to the churches. King was an example of the spirit in African Americans. He possessed fortitude in the midst of tragedy. His letter praises the spirit of all African Americans throughout.

After setting up his discourse as to what his mission is, King informs the clergy of the four steps of his campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” He makes it clear to them that the Birmingham merchants were not willing to negotiate. “The city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” This apathy toward the civil rights of African Americans was very common, especially in the south. Whites did not want to listen to what the black community had to say. Blacks were to be considered as being invisible. So King believed that non-violent tension was needed in order to wake up the collective wrong thinking of the day. He wanted for his actions to spark healthy dialogue resulting in equal rights for African Americans.

Martin Luther King quickly shifts the tone of his letter. A rapid pace begins to take over. It’s as if the beginning of his letter was strictly business-like. However, it takes a passionate turn and his righteous anger spills out onto the pages using the language tactic of repetition. But before giving his series of “when” scenarios, he throws in another antithesis, “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. King’s series of repetitions contain phrases such as “when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers”, “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters”, “when your first name becomes ‘nigger’”, “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’”. He tries to let this group of white clergymen see what it is like to live from the eyes of an African American.

After this section of the letter, he transitions by using yet another antithesis as he quotes St. Augustine, “an unjust law is no law at all”. The next portion of his letter takes on a political tone. He explains what a “just” law is and what an “unjust” law is. There is no doubt that the southern states during this time in history were clearly acting unconstitutionally. King mentions the “First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.” He gives political and biblical justifications for breaking unjust laws. He even refers to the fact that Hitler operated under “legal” German law. His political thesis was that segregation was unconstitutional and demanded to be dealt with. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates.”

Martin Luther King Jr. shifts his focus and then becomes apostolic in his writing. He addresses the flaws of the white church as a whole. He begins with, “I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need.” The sad part of the church in that part of history was that it ignored the civil rights issue. Using biblical theology of obeying the law of the land and the separation of the sacred and secular, it made it easy for the church to not get involved. King accused the church as being socially neglectful and afraid of being nonconformist. He proposed a return to the philosophy and doctrine of the early church. “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principals of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

You see, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed that it was the white moderates who were the greatest enemy to the Civil Rights cause. He even went so far as to saying that it was not the White Citizen’s Counselor or the Ku Klux Klan that posed the greatest threat. “The white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree in your methods of direct action’;”

His final discourse touches upon the idea of an unjust police force which has remained an issue even to this day. He commented about their “ugly and inhumane treatment of Negros here in the city jail”. He mentioned how the police “push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls.” He writes that they “slap and kick old Negro men and young boys”. He alludes to the fact that reformation is needed in the police force.

Reformation is the theme of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from prison. He calls for a reformation in the southern business community, the government, and the churches, among the whites and in the police force. His prison cell experience gave him the opportunity to display his intellect. (He was so smart that he graduated from college at age 15!) He was able to craft his words by establishing his credibility, making appeals, giving insight into the life of an African American, intellectual arguments, theological and political debates. He fashioned his letter with a spirit of negotiation and intellect rather than out of vengeance. He showed great restraint toward a group of religious leaders who could have easily been reamed out. The tone of King’s letter was diplomatic. He didn’t argue like a fool. He didn’t rage like a man of vengeance. Rather, he used his knowledge of different subject areas, his skill of communication, his intellectual arguments, and his passion for the cause to create a letter that would shake the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an apostle. He was an organizational leader. He was a politician. He was a man of divine purpose. He was a prophet. He was an amazing communicator. He showed all of us the impact that one person can have upon the world. He declared the message of divine and innate freedom even from a prison cell. His messages could not be overlooked. They demanded attention. His ability to move others through the use of effective communication and passion forever impacted the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, the messages of Martin Luther King Jr. created a very much needed earthquake in this American land of segregation. May the quaking continue!

Works Cited

“The Man with a mission—Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr.” Guyana Chronicle Online, January 19, 2004.

Adler, Davis. A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday House. New York. 1989

Gates, Henry Lewis Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay. “Martin Luther King Jr.”. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature., pgs. 1895-1908

King, Martin Luther Jr. “A Letter from Birmingham”. 1963. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Pgs. 1896-1908.

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Angie Mack is a musical director, performing artist, blues educator and writer who has a wealth of experience and connections in the arts and entertainment industry.

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