Works of Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay

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MLK Meaning in Letter From Birmingham

Making Meaning of MLK's Letter to Birmingham

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was written as a response to an open letter that appeared in a local newspaper from eight white clergymen of the state, including bishops, pastors, and a rabbi. In it, they called upon Dr. King for an end to the protests and what they considered "civil disobedience" taking place in the city (Patton 53). They urged instead for patient negotiation and legal action to address any perceived denial of rights to black citizens.

King responded calmly and rationally to the issues raised in the open letter. In what is one of his only written works, the Letter addresses the men as "Fellow Clergymen" and as "brothers." He wrote, "since I feel you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms" (1). He addressed each of their assumptions and criticisms, and also laid out his own disappointments and vision with and for the church as an agent of God's justice and peace. The Letter was quickly picked up by the media and is today noted for its historical significance and impact on social justice.


There are many complex themes called forth by the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," that are eloquently and effective made plain by King. One theme he offers in the Letter is that religious leaders needed to realize their essential interdependence. He stated: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (9).

During the civil rights era, and even in modern times, we see that American society has become increasingly multicultural and globalized. As a result our interdependence becomes both more evident and necessary. The fate of the most marginalized members of society are linked to the choices of the more powerful and affluent. Dr. King makes a clear case in the Letter that there is connection between all religious, ethnic and racial groups and that to truly love God, one must also consider the need for human equality and embrace other groups and communities -- and their struggles (Berry 113).

Dr. King also urged all to recognize that the deeply personal nature of segregation. This theme is evident when he says: "when you are & #8230; plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness' -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait" (3). Here he very poetically expresses the sense of urgency felt by African-Americans during that time. He humanizes the anguish and pain caused not only by legalized segregation, but also by its emotional and psychological impact. Many of the clergy who wrote the open letter to King, had not endured the hatred, bigotry and pain that African-Americans were grappling with at the time. Segregation was sending a very tangible message to the world then: You are inferior, you are nobody. King wanted the clergy to understand….....

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