Jannath Begum
Professor D. Weissmen
Short Paper: What is the structure of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail? "
Dr. King was arrested and sent to jail for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. After reading an open letter from eight white clergymen in the local newspaper criticizing him and his fellow activists, Martin Luther King decided he might as well write back to let them know what was on his mind. Turns out he had a lot on his mind, and that he hadn't just shown up to the protest to get out of preaching to his congregation for a few days. He had a philosophy and a plan and everything. The structure of the letter will be discuss throughout the essay.
Dr. King begins by explaining that he's responding to the eight clergymen because he believes them to be "men of genuine good will" with "criticisms … sincerely set forth." (1) Because they criticized him for coming from "outside" Birmingham, he justifies his presence, capping his argument off with one of his most memorable quotes: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…" (4)
Dr. King seg ues into a basic overview of the process and philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. He explains some of the behind-the-scenes decision-making to debunk the idea that the demonstrators were trying to cause chaos with no regard to the consequences. And he explains why bringing underlying social tension to the surface is how justice is eventually won.
Then Dr. King turns to the question of why all this hubbub has to happen  now . He gives a brief historical context to the Black struggle, describing how Black Americans have always been told to wait for justice to come to them, and how intolerable the situation really is. He argues that if white people understood the problems and oppression facing the Black community, they'd be fully supportive.
This section really gets to the core of Dr. King's philosophy. While his opponents call for law and order, he's trying to call attention to unjust, discriminatory laws that have no business existing in America. He makes a very logical set of distinctions between just and unjust laws, reminding the reader that evil has often been done legally, most notably in Nazi Germany, and that good has come of people conscientiously breaking laws and accepting the penalties.
Dr. King expresses his disappointment with white people who claim to be in favor of desegregation . He explains that justice doesn't come automatically over time, and that every advance made toward a better world has come from the active efforts of good people. He defends himself as an extremist for love in the tradition of Jesus.
Dr. King says that the Civil Rights Movement was hoping for support from white churches and Christian organizations in the South, but that support hasn't appeared. Yet he spends a good deal of this section praising the actions of many white individuals who have participated in and supported the demonstrations. He praises the clergymen he's responding to. He hopes that the church as a whole will move toward jus tice so it doesn't become a case of its former self.
In this brief section, Dr. King gets super inspirational, saying how sure he is that the Civil Rights Movement will prevail. Black people come from a history of slavery, and if they could survive that, they'll survive Jim Crow. Because the founding ideas of America and Christianity are on their side, Dr. King knows that they're going to win the struggle.
The eight white clergymen had commended the Birmingham Police for enforcing law and order and such, so Dr. King had to set the record straight. He describes the actual conduct of police officers at the demonstrations and in the jails. He wonders why the police are being praised and not the protestors. He doubles down on his claim that the real heroes will eventually get the respect they deserve.
Dr. King decides to wrap it up and is very polite and proper about it. He hopes his letter is well understood and received, and that he and the clergymen can meet soon. He ends on a typical poetic flourish, looking forward to the day