A Letter from Birmingham Jail: To You
In April of 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in solitary confinement
in Birmingham, Alabama. What did a clergyman do to get arrested? Dr. King led non-violent sit
ins at local businesses and marches, hoping to bring change to what he called “the most
segregated city in America.” There, cameras captured the tragic scene of local law enforcement
blasting protesters with fire hoses and attacking them with police dogs. The events caused an
emotional wave of debate to sweep over the country. It was here, sitting in a bleak barred cell
that Dr. King was smuggled a copy of “A Call for Unity,” a statement released by eight southern
clergymen (seven Christian, one Jewish) on the recent events in Birmingham.
The public statement indirectly condemned the actions of Dr. King and his affiliates,
stating that “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those
actions may be” and that any matters of civil injustice could and should be taken through the
courts. It commended the work of the Birmingham police department in “calmly”
keeping the peace amid such conflict. It called for the local Negro community to wait for a more suitable
time to push such controversial topics. On the edges of that very newspaper, Dr. King began
composing what we now know as “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In his letter, Dr. King’s
repetition of direct personalized phrases blended with clear imagery forces his audience to be
involved in the struggle. The two most poignant examples, which I will focus on here, are
found surrounding his use of two simple, yet powerful phrases: “if you” and “when you.”
The first, “if you,” is combined with brutal depictions of the events in Birmingham as
Dr. King dissolves the clergymen’s innocence, calling them to action. In King’s rebuke the eight
clergymen and their praise of the Birmingham Police, his language is anything but passive:
I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had
seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes…if you were to
observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to
watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see
them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they
did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace
together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
By beginning each phrase with these two short, commonplace words, King establishes a pattern
of speaking directly at “you.” He is not talking to the world. He is not talking to a nation. He is
not talking to a group; he is talking to you. It is custom in public debates, in order to preserve
respect and prevent hurt feelings, that messages are not directed at the individual members of the
opposing parties, but at the parties themselves. Here however, King’s elimination of ambiguity
allows him to put aside the façade of politics and take a unique and forceful one-on-one, man-to-
man approach, right at the clergymen themselves. But why? This emotional advance is a direct
response to the extremely passive and separated tone of the clergyman. These men, who others
look to as moral leaders, attempted to suppress emotion and thus not deal with the pain of other’s
suffering. His use of words like “ugly” and “inhumane” set the brutal scene of police violence
that bypasses logic, affecting the emotions of his audience. It draws upon human empathy almost
begging for help and support. Dr. King makes sure to mention the withholding of food from
inmates due to religious exercises, something that no man, let alone a priest or rabbi can support
with a clear conscience. Dr. King knows that these men feel, but because of their lack of
information, whether by circumstance or choice, they have remained numb to the struggles in
Birmingham. His emotional appeal seeks to tear down the wall of composure built by these eight
clergymen and let them fully experience what is happening in their country.
The second example is seen in the way Dr. King skillfully weaves an incredibly relatable
experience of a father with the driving phrase “when you” to motivate his audience to action.
Here, King shares an experience attempting to connect with moral leadership and fatherhood
backgrounds of the clergymen:
When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you
seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement
park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when
she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of
inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her
personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; -then you will
understand why we find it difficult to ‘wait’.
By directly referring to “you,” again, Dr. King calls out these religious leaders directly for
destroying the moral code of children by their lack of involvement and overall apathy toward the
civil rights movement. There is something powerful in looking at this from a father’s
perspective instead of a civil rights leader’s perspective. These so-called Fathers, these advocates
for peace, watch helplessly as an innocent child “develops and unconscious bitterness.” Dr. King
is able to show that apathy will not prevent such tragic distortions, but will instead cultivate
negative effects. By putting the issue in terms of something everyone understands, while
detailing the emotional cause and effect that occur, Dr. King creates a reality that one can almost
step into. Fatherhood is something that transcends time and space. It has been experienced by
man since the beginning of time and it is still here today. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Blacks,
Whites—all experience fatherhood. This simple example from Dr. King’s life is able deeply
connect with anyone from any culture. It connects with any age group, in any period of history;
It is certainly still poignant today. King’s use of relatable imagery surrounding “when you”
drives home the need for his audience to act.
Dr. King’s powerful message is directed by his use of “you” In both passages, the
repetition of “if you” and “when you” combined with the vivid descriptions Dr. King paints the
picture of the true events of Birmingham, forcing his audience to be involved in his cause. From
mass experiences of unnecessary and cruel police brutality, to the extremely individual and
innocent experience of a father, he conveys them in a way that the reader cannot hide behind the
façade of false information. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail directed so
heavily to each of the eight Alabama clergymen still pierces readers today, prompting a need to
act. You cannot read Dr. King’s words and stay distanced. It is as if he grabs you by the
shoulders with “if you” or “when you” and then tells you these eye-opening experiences he has
had, using such eloquent word choice. The struggle, the yearning for equality, the sad effects of
the conflict on children all become a part of the readers experience—you cannot hide from it.
They are now fully aware, and as such are accountable to use their positions to do something
about it. And now, so are you.
Carpenter, C.C.J., et al. “A Call for Unity.” A Call for Unity, King Encyclopedia , 19 Dec. 2000,
Accessed 21 Feb 2018.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” Why We Can’t Wait, ed. Martin
Luther King, Jr., 77-100, 1963.
m.pdf. Accessed 21 Feb, 2018.