“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Background:  Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) was a Baptist minister and became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was one of the principal organs of the civil rights movements in the US.  He advocated nonviolent resistance to patterns of racial injustice and was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 1964.  During a series of illegal (because a parade permit was denied his group) demonstrations in 1963 protesting the segregation of many public facilities in Birmingham, he was jailed and chided in an open letter (printed in a Birmingham newspaper) by several white clergymen for his efforts.  The following text constitutes King’s response.

Note all the initial objections raised against King’s actions in Birmingham (241-5) and his responses to them.  Do they appear satisfactory to you?  Why or why not?

King provides greater attention to the issue of “breaking laws” (245-6), probably because it is a qualitatively different sort of objection.  What is the force behind this charge and how does King respond to it?  Do you accept the validity of his argument?  Why or why not?

What do you think of King’s reflections on moderation and extremism? (247-8)  Do you believe that he is correct to consider Jesus an extremist in some sense?  From what you know of Francis of Assisi, would you consider him to be an extremist in a similar sense?

What do you think of King’s expression of disappointment in the leadership of the white churches? (249-250)  Is it ever legitimate to express disappointment in the leadership of churches?  If you were a Catholic, for example, would it be legitimate to question the leadership of the pope?

What similarities, if any, do the points raised in this letter bear to any of the other readings in this section?  To the kinds of concerns raised by Bonaventure in his reflections for this section?