Character Analysis on” Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Character Analysis: Martin Luther King Jr Letter from Birmingham Jail This essay will perform a character analysis on Martin Luther King Jr’s1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail to show that King was magnanimously polite to those who wronged him, although he refused to hide his passion and principles behind civilities. It will talk about how King was highly aware of the ‘bigger picture,’ and of the interconnectedness of phenomena others would not necessarily see as related.
The letter begins with King’s address to his “dear” clergymen, a group of white moderate preachers who had denounced the activist’s most recent protests – the ones which had landed him in jail – as “unwise and untimely.” The fact that King deigns to respond to these men, particularly as he goes on to explain that he is inundated with criticism daily, shows several things: primarily that he is not so passionate about his cause as to be blindly angry against those who do not entirely understand it, and who therefore may be converted. King is patient and reasoned, even though (as he explains later in the letter) he has reason enough to be outraged.
This politeness extends through what is otherwise a rousing and accusatory epistle. Rather than denouncing the white clergymen for their role in hindering black rights, King refers to them as his friends, and couches his arguments for nonviolent protesting in indirect and passive language: for example, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” King understands that the white clergymen expect savagery from him, and responds with a civility which is far more likely to win their minds to the cause of black rights. Thus he cleverly manages to state his politics precisely, distancing himself from violent methods while acknowledging that the situation is so overwhelming that violence of some sort is necessary.
From the fourth paragraph of the letter, this overwhelming bigger picture of racial injustice is clearly delineated for the reader. King repeats sentiments such as “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Nothing happens in a void, but it seems to be human nature to treat each case of injustice as if it had no relation to every other. As a character, King is intensely single-minded in his desire to eliminate racial prejudice; simultaneously, he is of a very broad view, seeing the monolith of Racism where others see just another unfortunate incident against a black person.
This is part of the explanation why King is so impassioned about the church: the institution which “nurtured” his family for at least three preceding generations should have stood against prejudice, but instead has become the “archdefender of the status quo.” He repeats many times that the church he “loves” has disappointed so many. The word “disappointment” and its derivatives echo through the second half of the letter, revealing that King had greater expectations than were fulfilled. King is a character who manages to flatter the church and white moderates in his chastisement of them, encouraging them to live up to his expectations of them and to help make America better instead of decrying them as enemies.
As the letter is carefully crafted to promote a specific political motive, it lacks character development: King is the same man from the beginning to the end. The only mention of his personal past is his high hopes for the church in the struggle for black rights: he “had hoped” for more from his religion, and was sadly let down. One can only imagine what it feels like to be disappointed by that which you have dedicated your life towards; however, he remains optimistic for the future, which shows that King was an astute as well as committed person.
It is easy to believe that King’s letter was persuasive: his learned arguments, backed by the heft of religion and history, combine with his more emotive outbursts to create a tightly-crafted and believable essay. The reader is left with no doubt that both his facts and his opinions are true, simply because they are spoken with echoes of painful first-hand knowledge – and with gravitas. The document cites Jesus, the apostles and numerous other biblical and religious characters repeatedly; theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, philosopher Martin Buber, existentialist Paul Tillich, preacher John Bunyan, presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and even the author T.S. Eliot form a significant part of Kings writing.
To discern King as a character from his amazing essay Letter from Birmingham Jail shows him to be a powerful, educated and persuasive person. It is a beautifully written piece.
King, Martin Luther, Jr (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from African Studies Center Website: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.