In spring 1963, after a failed campaign in Albany, Georgia, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a major nonviolent crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Walker, and other organizers dispatched hundreds of protestors, including young children, across Birmingham. Recalcitrant city officials ordered police to unleash snarling dogs on the demonstrators and sent firefighters to wash them down the streets with fire hoses. Millions of Americans were horrified when they witnessed these events on television. Hundreds of marchers were arrested, and on Easter Sunday King himself was jailed.
Early in the campaign eight clergy in Birmingham published a statement in the Birmingham Post Herald that called for racial harmony and an end to demonstrations, which the clergy deemed “unwise,” “untimely,” and “extreme.” While critical of the role played by “outsiders,” they addressed their declaration to the “white and Negro citizenry” of Birmingham, not to King himself, whom they never mentioned by name.
Relieved of his unrelenting schedule, the jailed King used his solitude to respond to the clergy's assertions. Writing a twenty-page letter/essay that was broadly disseminated, he offers what is easily his most lucid analysis of segregation and his most sophisticated defense of his own tactics. He contends that the city's brutal treatment of agitators represents the less dramatic, daily humiliations imposed by racism. Living in jail, he implicitly claims, symbolizes living under segregation.
Although King apparently carried no reading materials into his jail cell, he remembered his earlier orations and reworked several familiar passages and metaphors into “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” including material he originally borrowed from unacknowledged sources.
King folds these materials into a careful, complex argument that begins by defending his presence in Birmingham against the charge that he is an “outsider.” Explicitly comparing himself to the apostle Paul, who traveled widely to spread the gospel, King claims that, as a Christian minister, his job is to attack injustice wherever it appears. Then, as Malinda Snow explains, he insinuates into his text numerous Pauline allusions, which he reinforces by his simple presence in jail, where Paul also stayed.
As Richard Fulkerson observes, in “Letter” King adopts, with some modification, an ancient Greco-Roman oratorical pattern of introduction followed by proposition, division, confirmation, refutation, and peroration. Like certain classical orators, he persuades through thoughtful digressions; he adjusts classical form by shoving most of his argument into his refutation. Using what Fulkerson calls “multipremise refutation,” he expresses an initial disappointment at having his efforts deemed extreme, then layers that expression within a powerful defense of a certain species of extremism. To buttress this contention, he telescopes time and space by writing about Jesus, Paul, Amos, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and other “creative extremists” as though they shared his jail cell with him. Such leapfrogging of chronology and geography is a typical maneuver of African American folk preachers, including those King heard as a child.
For King, interlacing all these elements meant creating one of the most widely read and genuinely persuasive American essays of this century. The eight clergy never attempted to answer it.