A Comprehensive Letter from Birmingham Jail Summary
Are you writing a book review on the letter from Birmingham jail? If so you might need this quick summary. When we look at the plot overview, what you need to know is that the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is based on a time when Martin Luther King had been arrested and taken to jail after being a participant in the Alabama protests for segregation. Dr. King reads a letter from eight white clergymen from a newspaper that criticizes him and other activists. He then decides that he will write one back to express his thoughts. Now that you have the synopsis let us go into detail.
The Detailed Summary of Letter from Birmingham Jail
In this letter, Dr. King informs the clergymen that their criticism upset him and therefore he wished to address the concerns they raised. First, he addresses their claim that he was an ‘outsider’ who had gone to Birmingham to cause chaos. Dr. King justifies his presence by explaining that one of the affiliates of SCLC had invited the organization there (Birmingham) and that was why they came.
Dr. King then gives a moral justification that he had come to fight the injustice. He continues to say that he is compelled to fight for justice where it was lacking. Dr. King mentions that the clergymen were wrong to criticize the protestors without taking into account the causes of the protests in the first place.
He goes on to explain the process he had developed for organizing peaceful action. The SCLC had confirmed that Birmingham practiced racism in institutions. So, they made attempts to hold negotiations with the white business leaders. These negotiations broke down due to promises being broken by the white businessmen, and therefore SCLC decided to use “direct action” to protest.
The SCLC held out their protest due to Mayoral elections that were impending. In the elections, a racist named Eugene Connor was defeated, but Albert Boutwell who succeeded him was known to be a segregationist. This made the protests begin.
Dr. King reveals that he understood the clergymen’ preference of negotiation over the protests but also insists that the negotiations cannot occur without protests. This is because they create tension and crisis that force the unwilling parties to accept negotiations in good faith. He goes further to admit that he understands that words such as ‘tension’ scare moderates. He then gives some examples that support tension as a fundamental aspect of human growth. He echoes that tension created by the direct action approach was necessary if the segregation was to come to an end.
He then turned to the criticism by the clergymen that the actions of the SCLC are untimely. He insists that they will always seem untimely are some privileged groups who will always oppose any steps that threaten the status quo.
Dr. King insists that the black man has waited too long for justice and goes into a series of abuses that the black people have suffered over the years and the present. He, therefore, hopes that the clergymen will excuse their impatience.
He goes on to give the distinction between just and unjust laws and insists that individuals should be justified to break unjust laws. He explains just laws as those that protect the dignity of humans and unjust laws as ones that degrade the personality. He further states that unfair laws hurt the oppressors as well since they provide them with a false feeling of superiority.
He then focuses on segregation and describes it as unjust. In explanation, he states that segregation is an example of a law that forces the minority to follow while the majority are exempted. He continues to say that some of the just laws turn unjust when they are being misused. He gives the example of the “parading without a permit” which is why he got arrested as one of the laws that support injustice.
He then says that he is willing to accept the penalties for his law-breaking because displaying the disregard of the law would result in anarchy. Next, he winds up his thoughts on the unjust laws by giving the example of Germany whereby Nazi Germany justified the persecution of Jews in their statutes.
Dr. King switches to the topic of white moderates who valued order more than justice. He continues to say that this allowed segregation to continue. He goes further in attacking the moderates who demanded patience. He says that they believe that over time things would get better. Dr. King states that time is neutral and it would not change anything and change can only occur when good men take necessary action.
Next, he addresses the claim that the actions of the SCLC were extreme. He explains that he is in the middle of two forces that opposed each other on black change. First is the blacks who are complacent because they are successful and hence they are not willing to sacrifice their success for the chase of equality. On the other side, there are more violent groups that consisted of the Black Muslims led by Elijah Muhammad. He, therefore, explains that he seeks to provide a non-violent protest.
He then switches to the label “extremist” and embraces it claiming that one can be a creative extremist and gives the examples of Abraham Lincoln and Jesus. He expresses his disappointment that moderates cannot make the distinction between these two types. He also expresses his disappointment in the church for remaining silent during the injustice. He reveals that the cowardice of the churches would make them irrelevant in the long run.
Dr. King then reflects on the history of the blacks and their strong persistence despite the struggles they have endured.
While preparing to finish Dr. King expresses his disappointment in the recommendation that the clergymen gave the police that said that they were non-violent. He claims that they ignored the abuse. He is also upset because the clergymen failed to recognize the black people who were brave enough to fight injustice without violence.
Finally, Dr. King closes by apologizing for nature and length of his letter and says that he hopes that they will understand the forces that led him to that point.
The letter is signed “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”