Reply to criticism brought to him by clergymen

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. is an open letter which explores a variety of themes in relation to the civil rights movement in the US: non-violent resistance, racial discrimination, injustice, and morality.

The formal and main intention of the writer is to reply to criticism brought to him by clergymen for getting involved in the Birmingham campaign. King makes this intention clear from the start through direct address and, throughout the text, through rhetorical questions: “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement…”;  “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?’ ”

However, beyond this formal intention, King pursues a series of other goals which we will outline next, and which roughly correspond to each of the topics he discusses.

Promote and defend non-violent activism

An important intention King has with the text is to advocate in favor of non-violent activism. To achieve this intention, the writer uses a number of rhetorical strategies such as appealing to logic to show protests are the only way to advance equal rights: “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Additionally, the writer shows the audience through logical argument that non-violent campaigns were the only possible solution after negotiations have failed: “Nonviolent dire...

The text shown above is just an extract. Only members can read the full content.

Get access to the full Study Guide.

As a member of, you get access to all of the content.

Sign up now

Already a member? Log in