Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail, responds forcefully yet politely to a public statement made by eight Alabama clergymen in 1963. He defends his position as an African American and strongly defends racial equality, referencing countless sources and utilizing several literary devices. Most significantly, King uses frequent Biblical allusions and metaphors, not only to relate to the Clergymen and the people of Alabama, but also to display his passion for equality. For instance, when he speaks of just and unjust laws, he references the reasoning of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “To put in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any laws that degrades human personality is unjust”(King 180).
King cites the book of Daniel when he discusses Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the disobedience of a law for higher moral principle. King also relates himself to the Apostle Paul and his thriving effort to assist the men and women who call for his aid. After much further research I have gained new insight in why King used these metaphors as he did. Outside sources have helped me analyze the deeper meaning behind the allusions and understand the changes King was hoping to impose on the public and the Clergymen. King’s ideals are supported with his immense knowledge of the Bible, which make his connections extremely credible.
King opens his letter by connecting himself with the Apostle Paul in an attempt to better associate with the Clergymen. “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I” (King 174). Upon first read of the “Letter” I clearly thought that King was using Biblical references simply to relate to the Clergymen on a level they could understand. Though King is, in a sense, trying to establish his credibility by using this allusion, there is a much more clandestine meaning. “Like The prophets of the eighth century and like St. Paul, King must leave home and respond to the call for aid” (Tiefenbrun 265).
After researching Paul, I found why King used him in his letter. Paul was persecuted for spreading Christianity. So much so that he was put in prison. While in prison he, like King, wrote many letters responding to the criticism he was receiving. Some of these letters were encouragement to the Christians of Corinth and later became the book of Corinthians in the Bible. Paul died as a martyr, fighting for his beliefs just as King did. Paul’s mention was an early warning to the Clergymen of what they were doing to King. If they continued their criticism and persecution, King will end up facing a grim future.
At first read I thought King was only addressing the Clergymen as a response to their letter, but with further research I have uncovered an indirect public statement. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King discusses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, praising their act of civil disobedience. He states, “It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire” (King 180).
In this statement King is reaching out the general public, encouraging them not to conform to a “false idol” of society. ” Kings Biblical reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego creates an identity between the Alabama demonstrators’ form of civil disobedience and “the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at sake” (Tiefenbrun 263). King uses Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to correlate his ideas of what a society could be not only to the ignorant people of Alabama but also to everyone willing to listen.
Martin Luther King Jr. handpicked these events in Biblical history to more clearly represent what he is writing about and why he is so avidly defending his cause. He argues against repression and urges the public to defend their rights and resist the rut of conformity. Just reading Letter from Birmingham Jail won’t do it justice. Further researching the components of this letter have opened my eyes to what King was really portraying. King is pleading with the Clergymen to reconsider their prejudice against him and his beliefs. He is driving the public to become like him, and to become like Paul stating that it is ok to be persecuted for your beliefs. He makes clear in hismessage that it will not be an easy task but it must be done in order to create an influential change in society. This change must be done now so that it can display its longstanding effects on the generations to come.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A World of Ideas. Comp. Bissegger. Writers House LLC, 1963.
Mott. Wesley T. “The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Phylon (1960-), Vol 36, No. 4. (4th Qtr., 1975), pp. 411-421. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8906%28197536%3A4%3C411%3ATROMLK%3E2.0.CO%3B2-ITiefenbrun, Susan. “Semiotics and Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Autumn, 1992), pp. 255-287. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=10431500%28199223%294%3A2%3C255%3ASAMLK%22%3E2.0.CO%3B2-I