Letter from Birmingham Jail

Author

King, Jr., Martin Luther

Genre

Article/Essay

Overview

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader of the American civil rights movement as well as a world-renowned figure in the modern history of non-violent resistance. Assassinated in 1968, he now has a U.S. holiday established in his honor. King's famous letter, an eloquent defense of non-violent resistance, was written from Birmingham Jail where he was incarcerated for the demonstrations he led in that city. The letter responds to a published statement from his fellow clergymen calling King's activities "unwise and untimely." King argues that the purpose of non-violence is to bring out the tension already existing in a community so that it can be exposed and healed: "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." He also argues that none of us should ever sit by and see injustice done because "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." King's letter raises important issues about how and when to respond to social injustice.

Full Text*

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Source

I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Sagebrush, 1992).

Type

Reading

Themes

Citizenship and DemocracyCrisis and ConflictJustice and EqualityLeadership and ResponsibilityPoverty and NeedSocial and Political Change

Big Questions

What are our responsibilities as citizens? Who or what are we responsible for?What are the barriers to building democracy?What is democracy? What does it look like in action?How should we respond to crisis?Can there be justice without equality?Is justice for all possible? Or will injustice always exist?What is the world we dream of living in? Is it possible?What do we expect from the people we lead? What do we expect from our own leaders?What is my responsibility to the people I lead?How do we know what someone needs?How do we recognize need?What enables change? What gets in the way?What is change? Do people experience change differently?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think of the famous line, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"?
  2. What is "direct action"?
  3. Why is it important for King to address injustice around the nation, no matter how far removed he is from it?
  4. How are you connected to or responsible for injustice locally, nationally, or globally?
  5. What responsibilities do we have to "injustice everywhere"?
  6. What are our limitations in addressing injustice?
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