Review: Letter From Birmingham Jail

I first saw this cute new collection of Penguin Modern books on Instagram and I couldn’t resist checking them out. It’s a 50-book collection of important works from important authors in tiny bite-sized pieces. Each book is around 60 pages long and contains short samples from modern classic authors. The first book in the set is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.

letterfrombirminghamjailAbout the book: Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter, written on the margins of a newspaper in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, takes up most of the pages in this slim volume. What follows is a short sermon entitled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The first work addresses a critical news article, encourages peaceful protest in response to moral wrongs, and notes the state of racism in 1960’s southern USA. The second work is a religious exploration of how to live fulfillingly. The three main points are to live with length (accepting yourself and using your unique gifts to make the world a better place), with breadth (accepting others and extending kindness into the world), and with width (accepting God and remembering that there are higher powers at work that will even the world’s imbalances in time).

The first piece of this book is (or should be, at least) an American staple. It has some specific things to say about Birmingham and 1963 America, which makes it a piece of history. But it also discusses morality and law, racism at large, the needs for peace and protest, and other topics that make it a timeless letter. King’s writing is patient and unoffensive even as he lists the offenses committed against him. He’s an inspiring writer because he possess both the raw talent to convey his ideas clearly and the desire to use his writing as a tool for world improvement. This letter shows the hardships King faced as an African American in southern US and it also shows the stand he’s willing to make and the risks he’s willing to take with his own life to help improve the lives of so many others.

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

The second piece in this book is more religious; Martin Luther King Jr. (as well as his ancestors) was a Christian preacher, and this work reflects that. Having grown up with Christianity myself, I can’t say exactly how interesting this part of the book would be for readers with other religious backgrounds. Personally, I think it’s good to read about other religions to gain a better sense of the world and understand beliefs outside your own, but I know I haven’t read enough about other religions yet myself. I would be interested to hear whether some of the religious ideas in this sermon translate well to religions outside of Christianity or how an atheist might read them. The first two points King makes can be easily extracted from their religious base and seem to me like general good advice for all the people of the world. But the third point is entirely focused on religion and I’m not sure what affect it might have on readers who feel that it doesn’t apply.

“After accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems. And after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.”

So much has changed since these pieces were written in the 1960’s, so many of the messages conveyed in this book are still applicable today. Letter From Birmingham Jail reveals both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Both of these pieces are beautifully and powerfully written. I’m so glad that America has seen writers like Martin Luther King Jr. who wield their pens to make a difference by speaking well and not just loudly. I hope there will be many more, and that King will always have a readership. I’ve had to read excerpts from Letter From Birmingham Jail in school, but it’s such a short and important piece that I can’t believe I never had to read the whole thing. I’m glad I finally corrected that. I would be interested to read more from this writer (which I believe to be the point of the Penguin Modern collection– these little samples encourage deeper delving), and I’m definitely going to be reading more from the Penguin Modern collection itself.

Are you interested in this set? Check out the list.


The Literary Elephant


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