Questions and Concepts

American government often changes because a political issue or social condition is protested publicly. Americans have a long tradition of gathering at city hall or the steps of Congress to demonstrate for or against an idea.

One of the most important movements in the United States has been for civil rights — economic, political and social equality for African-Americans and other minorities. In the 1960s much of the momentum for the civil rights movement came from public demonstrations. Demonstrators were often jailed for disturbing the peace and similar offenses. In one such case in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. King and the others were strongly criticized. Eight Birmingham clergymen wrote a letter to express their criticism. This letter appeared as a paid advertisement in a Birmingham newspaper.

King wrote a letter that explained his reasons for rallying local residents to demonstrate against segregation. As King relates, his response to the eight clergymen was “begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while [he] was in jail, … continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad [his] attorneys were eventually permitted to leave [him].”

As you read the portions of King’s letter, try to decide why he and others used protest methods they knew were likely to send them to jail. Then, based on what you have read and what you know of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, answer the following questions:


  1. What guarantees in the First Amendment are relevant to King’s protest actions? Explain why.

  2. When King referred to “constitutional and God-given rights,” what do you think he meant?

  3. What did King hope to accomplish by demonstrating publicly?

  4. King wrote that he had “no alternative” but to demonstrate. Explain why he reached that conclusion.

  5. Instead of demonstrations, what alternatives would his critics have recommended?

  6. Conflicts of values are inevitable. What are some of the values that were confronted in civil rights protests? Which of King’s values were in conflict with values of those who criticized him?

  7. In the face of large demonstrations, what were the legal responsibilities of the Birmingham police? How can police tell the difference between lawful protest and unruly or dangerous gatherings?

  8. King gave direct evidence for “unavoidable impatience.” What are his examples?

  9. According to King, what is a “just law”? an “unjust law”?

  10. What laws and social conditions did King want to change?

  11. What is a “moderate”? What is an “extremist”?

    Use these four questions for a more in-depth study of King’s use of language.

  12. Consider King’s audience. Why was it important for King to include the churches’ response to the freedom movement and biblical allusions?

  13. Which shared values did King use to convince his critics of the rightness of his position?

  14. How was his argument strengthened through references to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber?

  15. In addition to concrete language, King used allusion and figurative language. Was his use of allusion persuasive when he used examples of “an extremist”? Give examples of figurative language. How is this a useful rhetorical device?

Concepts Found in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Educators, for your assistance, the following list specifies the major concepts covered in Questions.

  • The First Amendment guarantees rights to the demonstrators:

    • Free expression of religion. King believed blacks had been denied their “God-given rights.”

    • Freedom of speech. King publicly called for civil rights at the demonstrations.

    • Freedom of assembly. King organized the demonstrations.

    • Freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.

    • This was one goal of King’s protest.

  • When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refers to "God-given rights," he is referring to inalienable rights, those rights that the government does not define or create. Rights such as life, liberty and happiness are considered inalienable. Constitutional rights are established by federal and state constitutions and refined through legislation. These rights include voting rights, equal protection of the laws and due process. In America a special group of rights exists that are both constitutional and inalienable. For more than 200 years, United States citizens have relied on the First Amendment to prevent government interference with the inalienable rights and freedoms of belief and expression.

  • Time was part of his argument. Blacks had been told many times to wait for change, which never happened. King was demanding freedom and justice “too long denied.” Note his use of “wait,” “patient” and “unavoidable impatience.” The demonstrations were demanding freedom now.

  • King was educating the clergy and public through this letter. He was trying to let people everywhere know what conditions blacks faced in their lives. He wanted to show how his protests were related to the rights others already enjoyed. He also said freedom is never given by oppressors unless the oppressed demand it.

  • King acknowledged the importance of maintaining law and order, and protecting the public from disturbances and violence. Patience and waiting, negotiation and other less vocal, less public actions like letters to the editor or lobbying city councils or legislatures have all been tried. They had no recourse but nonviolent direct action.

  • King was willing to take the legal consequences of nonviolent direct action. Often a permit is required to preserve free speech and to ensure public safety at large assemblies. Without a permit the gathering may be unlawful. Protests that experience suggests may lead to unlawful acts, such as rioting, arson or physical violence, are also subject to tight restrictions. Emotional demonstrations may start out lawful, but turn dangerous. The police must judge how the participants and observers are behaving, and suppress speech only if it is likely to incite immediate lawless behavior. The basic principle involved is to find a way to allow speech and assembly to happen rather than to stop the expression.

  • The urgency of blacks’ demands for equality was in conflict with the belief in slow change.

  • King never forgets his primary audience — “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” clergy from Roman Catholic, Jewish and different Protestant traditions. There was more to unite than to separate them. In his conclusion he refers to the “disinherited children of God,” “sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage,” “great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers” and “strong in the faith.” King felt both sides respected the law, though he felt compelled to break “unjust laws.” He was a “fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”