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King’s Apology: Reading the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a Modern Version of the Socratic Speech

Christian Latrice Heyser
Mentor: Dr. James Dunson

View a PDF version of this scholarly note


Although Martin Luther King Jr. is rarely acknowledged as a philosopher, he and Socrates share some strong philosophical views. They were both committed to a higher power and were sincerely concerned with not only the well being of their societies, but also the spiritual and moral health of the individual. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Socrates’ speech in the Apology share a similar structure, and they use many of the same strategies. Both are defenses against the accusations from the clergy of Birmingham and the citizens of Athens, respectively. These defenses use similar strategies not just to prove the innocence of these great men, but also to turn the charges against their accusers. In doing so, King and Socrates suggest that there is a true and a false understanding of the idea in question (e.g. what it means to be an extremist). Most importantly, this essay reveals King’s sincere concern for the moral and spiritual well-being of the individual. The process of analyzing and comprehending King’s and Socrates philosophical views reveals why they used civil disobedience, rather than violence, as a tool to promote social progress.

Key Terms

Martin Luther King, Socrates, Moral Well-being, Spiritual Well-being

About the Author

Christian Heyser is a Chemistry major with a minor in Biology from Memphis, TN. Upon graduating from Xavier in 2013, she will be commissioned into the United States Navy. Read more ...

About the Faculty Mentor

Dr. James Dunson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, has a research background in ethics, political philosophy, and the history of philosophy, specifically the 19th century.

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