An analysis of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail captures some of the core elements of his public discourse.  Although the letter had not been orated in public, it is similar in style to his more popular public speeches and brings out the inspirational and charismatic aspects of King’s personality.  The letter was first published in The Atlantic as “”The Negro Is Your Brother”.  It was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by some prominent Caucasian religious leaders of the Southern states. Even today, the document is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of literature to have come out during the Civil Rights movement.  Editor Don Abel exercises several editorial choices in the shortened version presented in the text.  The rest of the essay will attempt to provide possible rationale for those choices while also commenting on their merit.

The very first editorial choice made by Don Abel starts with the cutting-out of paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of the original text.  This is straightforward to understand, as Martin Luther King sets out to explain the reasons and context of his imprisonment in Birmingham jail, which are peripheral to the core intent of the letter.  Similarly, starting with the paragraph “You deplore the demonstrations…”, subsequent passage addresses the ongoing tensions and agitations in Birmingham, on account of which Dr. King was arrested.  Since these pertain to the specific event, the editor might have chosen to skip through them.  In other words, Don Abel seems intent on highlighting the essential message of Dr. King addressing the concerns of the African American community as a whole and not just those related to the Birmingham situation.

Don Abel also takes other editorial liberties in order to structurally arrange the letter into logical blocks.  For example, he inserts subtopics within the letter such as Introduction, Civil Disobedience, White Moderates, The Charge of Extremism, and Conclusion, which are intended to aid the student in understanding the text better.  The editor also breaks up paragraphs into two or more blocks at a few places.  This was perhaps done to present allied yet different points separately.  Several paragraphs toward the end of the letter are truncated as they explicate and elaborate points noted by Dr. King earlier in the piece. Overall, the editor succeeds in presenting to the student the essence of The Letter from Birmingham Jail by truncating some of the context and in-depth analysis of the Negro question in America.

An appealing element of Reverend King’s rhetoric that made it so effective in garnering public support for his cause was the ingenuous use of metaphors and lyrical constructs in his writings and speeches.  The edited version also amply demonstrates the tools of rhetoric Dr. King used in his speeches and writings that have a powerful effect on the listener.  It also demonstrates Dr. King’s employment of a historical perspective to current political events.  For example, the reference to “three hundred and forty years” is in reference to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.  Such references give an aura of authenticity and credibility to the point being illustrated and hence kept intact.  Other recognizable aspect of Dr. King’s individual style of narration is also included.  For instance, the usage of “brothers and sisters” is a particularly powerful rhetorical tool.  This was a time when many African Americans were adopting Islam as their religion, which is founded on the principles of universal brotherhood.  Hence, Don Abel includes these sections as a way of projecting the emotional appeal of the letter.

Finally, while Dr. King was a devoted Christian in his day, most of his public expressions have been secular.  Although there might be an odd reference to Biblical precedents, his speeches and writings are not based on a theological framework – most of his discourse falls under the philosophy of humanism. This observation is true of the letter as well, and Don Abel ensures that the edited version captures this spirit.

Hence, overall, the edited version satisfactorily captures the salient features of the original letter while also making it concise.

Works Cited:

Donald Abel, Fifty Readings in Philosophy, published by McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011, ISBN 978-0-07-353580-7, p.484-491.

Martin Luther King Jr., (16th April, 1963), Letter from a Birmingham Jail, African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, retrieved from <>