Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

free essay“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a response written and addressed to several clergymen who had composed an open letter criticizing the actions of Dr. King and the actions of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) during their rampant protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. told the clergymen that he was utterly upset about their criticisms and that his wish was to address their concerns. Dr. King believed that the clergymen had made a mistake in criticizing the protestors without equally examining the racist causes of the injustice that the protest was against. In this letter, Dr. King sought to provide a moral lesson for his presence, asserting that he had come to Birmingham for the course of fighting injustice. It was out of his firm belief that all states and communities were interrelated, and he was compelled to work hard to bring justice anywhere injustice was practiced.

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The Content of the Clergymen’s Letter

The clergymen were the ones responsible for issuing “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” that dealt with racial problems in Alabama. They expressed their understanding that honest convictions applied in racial matters could appropriately be persuaded in the courts, but their major concern was that the decisions made in those courts should be adhered to. Thereafter, there accrued some evidence of increased forbearance coupled with a willingness to face the facts. In addition, the clergymen’s letter showed that responsible citizens had undertaken to work on several problems that caused unrest and unnecessary racial friction. In Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, the then public events had strongly indicated that people had the opportunity for a new conviction and a realistic approach to racial problems.

Historical Circumstances of Birmingham, Alabama

Based on the information obtained from King’s letter to the clergymen, one is able to deduce the kind of atmosphere that was around Birmingham at that time. White moderates had greatly disappointed the efforts of Blacks and Latin Americans. At that time, Whites valued “order” over “justice”, resultantly making it easier for the injustice of segregation to widen and persist. As was the case, moderates could not distinguish between nonviolent action and the violence of the oppressors (163). Blacks were undermined openly and considered less superior to the Whites. Although the then American constitution stipulated fairness of all people irrespective of race, origin, color, sex, or religion, the proponents of the same constitution made Blacks feel less human. In schools, White teachers treated White students with more consideration and favor than Blacks. The worst of all was the fact that education had been considered best to Whites and not Blacks, because Blacks were of the primitive origin (172-173). One should note the fact that the history of Blacks showed that these people had greatly survived slavery and persisted towards freedom despite many centuries of atrocities committed against them.

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The Most Important Exchanges in the Letter

Negotiations vs. Direct Action

One of the factors that seriously moved the clergymen to write the letter was the manner, in which they were being confronted with a sequence of demonstrations by some of their Negro citizens and partially directed and led by outsiders. It was in response to the fear that the hopes of their people might be subjected and reduced to irredeemable shame and frustration. The demonstrations were rudely “untimely and unwise” (58). The local Negro leadership had called for open and honest negotiations of racial dealings in their region. Such kind of handling of issues could only be best attained by citizens living in that metropolitan region, be they Negro or White, meeting with their experiences and knowledge of the local situation at that time. All the clergymen were thus bombarded with the weight of facing the responsibility of bringing harmony and finding the proper channels for its attainment.

What Dr. King was to address in Birmingham was the fact that violence and hatred had no single sanctions in their political and religious traditions. In this regard, any actions related to matters of incitement to violence and hatred may contribute to the resolution of their own local problems. The clergymen’s letter was a commendation that the community together with the local news media should continue showing restraint in the face of continuation of demonstrations and to stand in solidarity with the government while it fought violence. These clergymen advocated that the Negro community should withdraw their support from such demonstrations and unite locally in working peacefully to realize a better Birmingham. Whenever there were consistent incidences of denial of rights, the clergymen were of the opinion that a cause had to be pressed in the courts and in negotiations amongst local leaders and not just ending on the streets. The clergymen appeal was to both their White and Negro citizenry to always observe the principles of law and order and just seek to practice what is acceptable to society.

Breaking of Laws vs. Fighting for “Justice”

The clergymen alleged that Dr. King together with his affiliate associations broke the law. In exchange, King asserted that they did not break the law but they were on their course of fighting for justice, and he noted that sometimes breaking “unjust” law could not be considered an act of punishment because an “unjust” law was there to make people suffer. Being held in Birmingham, Dr. King alleged that there was too much injustice in that region. Dr. King told of how he had been compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his own town and home area. He actually responded to the Macedonian call for aid. He argued that he was very cognizant of the existing interrelatedness of all states and communities. His freedom could never have allowed him to sit idle in “comfort zone” in Atlanta and not to be concerned with what was going on in Birmingham (23). He cited that “injustice anywhere is a total threat to everywhere” (178).

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King further contented that they were often caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, which tied them in a singular garment of destiny. This led him to concur that whatever affected one individual directly it also influenced others indirectly. He had made such a bold move to sensitize all people, irrespective of their regional boundaries, because he feared that he did not want to witness another incidence of living with a narrow and provincial “outsider agitator” notion (17). In his introspective, Dr. King acknowledged that anyone who lived outside of America could never be considered an outsider anywhere within the bounds of America.

Dr. King’s Response to the Clergymen’s Accusations

In his response, Dr. King wrote courageously while being confined in the Birmingham jail. He was surprised that the clergymen’s letter called his most recent activities by terming them as “unwise and untimely” (58). In the first instance, Dr. King hardly paused to respond to criticisms of his ideas and work, and he felt that these clergymen were men of good will and their criticisms were genuinely set forth, a factor that had made him resolve to respond to their statement in patient and reasonable terms.

Dr. King first started by explaining clearly why he was being held there in the Birmingham jail (108). Dr. King said that he was a proud president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He told that the organization frequently shared financial, educational and staff resources with their affiliates (12-15). He recalled how in the past months, one of the affiliate in Birmingham had asked them to join hands in engaging in a non-violent direct action program. Having consented, the organizational members had no choice except to live to the promise, and this included everyone who had organizational ties.

The Need for Demonstration to Bring Change

Dr. King appraised the clergymen for their exaggeration of the rampant demonstrations happening in Birmingham. However, he pitied their statement by stating that it had failed completely to express a similar concern for the then conditions that had brought about the demonstrations. In this particular letter, Dr. King sharply differed with the clergymen’s letter because they accused him without having any single idea of what could have led to the then status quo. If only they had known the cause of the problems and injustices that was eating them, their people, and the community in whole, they could not have pointed any accusing finger at what Dr. King and his organization had done. However, just like anybody else, they were blinded to the real problems and causes of racial segregation affecting them.

From the letter, one could see that Dr. King was sorry for these clergymen that none of them could even want to rest content with the super visual kind of social analysis that dealt simply with effects and did not tackle actual underlying causes. According to him, there were ongoing demonstrations in Birmingham, and the unfortunate bit is that the city’s power structure had left the Negro community without any alternative (24). Dr. King said that in any non-violent campaign, there were four primary phases: collecting the facts to determine the existence of injustices, negotiating, self-purification, and finally, swinging into direct action. He told them his team had undergone all these steps in Birmingham. He even showed them by stating the fact that Birmingham was the most thoroughly segregated city in the entire United States. The city’s ugly record of brutality was widely known and it was most frequented by the manner, in which Negroes experienced gross injustices in the courts. Another credible evidence was that there had been more unresolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in this particular city as compared to any other city in the country. Based on these conditions, Negro leaders had sought to negotiate with the city leaders, yet the latter consistently refuted engaging in good faith negotiation.

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Agony caused by Resistance of the Leaders towards Change

From what was revealed from Luther’s letter, it appeared as though Luther’s efforts to talk with the Birmingham leaders on matters of economic progress had failed. In the course of their negotiations, certain promises had been made by merchants, including the removal of stores’ humiliating racial signs. Based on the already-made promises, Rev. Fred Shutleworth together with the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement agreed to a moratorium on every demonstration. As time went by, King realized with regret that he had been taken for a ride and that they had become victims of a broken promise. Most of the signatories that had been put down in the agreement had been removed, and only a few remained.

In several experiences, the hopes of Luther and other activists had been dashed away, allowing the settling of a shadow of a deep disappointment in them. This left them with no possible alternative except for swinging into direct action, an only opportunity that would allow them to present their own bodies as an avenue of laying the case before the conscience of both the local and national communities. Armed with the knowledge of the then existing difficulties, they embarked on undertaking a process of self-purification. Thus, they began a sequence of workshops tailored towards sensitizing the spirit of non-violence.

However, the question emerged as to what human being could withstand being hit by hard blows without retaliating. That was a pressing challenge that they were confronted with, and it started pushing them to seek a further fiercer move. With time, the team decided on scheduling its direct action program for the then Easter season, bearing in mind that apart from Christians, that was the best shopping period of the year. They knew that a strong economic withdrawal program would turn out to be the by-product of direct action, and thus the team consented that that would be the time to unleash pressure on the merchants to pave way for the highly sought-after change.

Why Demonstrations and not Negotiations

The point of controversy between the clergymen and Martin Luther King Jr.’s points comes out, especially when the clergymen question the possibility of Luther using negotiations instead of demonstrations, sit-ins, direct action, and marches. In response to this puzzling question, Dr. King said that non-violent direct action was meant to create a crisis and facilitate a heightened tension so that a community that had long refused to negotiate might be forced to confront the issue at hand. Using force was to dramatize the issue to an extent that it could no longer be ignored. Although King citing the creation of tension as a portion of the work of non-violent resistance was shocking, he had always liked a certain type of non-violent tension that was necessary for growth and advancement. To over-emphasize his point, Dr. King admitted that there was need for Americans to create tension in the mind so that people could rise from the bondage of half-truths and myths to the unfettered dominion of objective appraisal and creative analysis.

How It Works

In defending the purpose of their direct action, Dr. King alleged that it was a war designed to create a situation that was packed with a crisis to open the door to negotiation. With regard to the accusation leveled against Dr. King and his associates about the untimely nature of their actions, Dr. King answered that there was no way the association could have given more time to the new city administration to act. In response to this question, Dr. King said that the new Birmingham administration should be prodded about similarities to the ongoing one, just before it was allowed to act. He, therefore, made it clear that the whole bunch of the citizenry would be mistaken if they felt that the election of Albert Boutwell as the city mayor would bring the millennium to Birmingham. He perceived the mayor together with other leaders of the city as great segregationists who were bent on ensuring that there was no alteration of the city’s status quo.

In his words, these leaders were very happy seeing what had been and was currently observed in the city. His hopes were that the mayor would be keen enough to realize the futility inherent in massive resistance to desegregation. His fear was that the Mayor of the city could only see these if the pressure would mount up from devotees of civil rights. Dr. King further noted in his letter that the association could not have made any single gain in civil rights without determining non-violent and legal pressure. Regrettably, it has always been known that privileged groups hardly succumb to their privileges easily and voluntarily. Although individuals might see the moral light and voluntarily give up their own unjust posture, groups would be more immoral as compared to individuals.

A Question of Breaking the Laws

The clergymen had expressed a great deal of anxiety and worry over the issue that Dr. King’s association was willing to break laws. With this concern being legitimate, Dr. King and his association had urged the people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision that sought to outlaw segregation in public places such as schools and bus stations. However, Dr. King, in response to this particular ruling, asked whether one could advocate breaking some laws and just obeying others. The forthcoming answer to this question lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. This was the situation happening around Birmingham, Alabama and several other states in America at that particular time in American history.

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King himself advocated that everybody had to make it a strict personal habit of obeying the laws of the state and the courts, but only “just” laws. He added that everyone had a moral responsibility and obligation to disobey unjust laws, even if such an action would harm their well-being and progress. Only doing so would prove that such a person was patriotic to the nation and was mindful of the nation and state’s advancement. This also required that everybody should have a selfless character.

Determining whether the Law was Just or Unjust

Having tackled the issue of obeying just laws and disobeying the unjust laws, King went an extra mile to shed light on the distinction between the two. He said that a “just law is a human-made code which requires both the law of God and moral law.” On the other hand, an unjust law was a code that was out of harmony with the moral law. By using a demonstration of St. Thomas Aquinas’ illustration to explain his point better, Dr. King said that an unjust law was a human law not rooted in natural law or eternal law. Any law that sought to uplift the human personality was just, but one that degraded human personality was unjust. This was what Dr. King was referring to when he told the clergymen of the kind of laws the Supreme Court was busy passing and asking people to either obey them or reject others.

King’s Actions: should they be Condemned or not?

Already, the clergymen had mentioned in their statement that the actions made by Martin Luther King Junior and his association should be condemned because these clergymen perceived that these actions precipitated violence. According to him, this was not a logical assertion. Following consistent affirmation by the federal courts, it was morally wrong to urge a person to cease his efforts in order to gain his primary constitutional rights since the quest was likely to precipitate violence.

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At the close of his letter, Dr. King addresses the clergymen’s condemnation of the Birmingham police, whom they allege were admirably non-violent while confronting the said protests. Dr. King asserts that the clergymen are rather ignorant of the dirty abuses these clergymen have used, but also notes that they use restraint to coax injustice, a factor that makes them quite blameworthy. Dr. King is upset that the clergymen have failed to commend about the black people who had selflessly fought against injustice in a non-violent way. Finally, he apologizes for both the length and potential overstatement of his letter but hopes that the recipients and readers of his letter will understand the forces that have propelled him to such uncertainty. He lets them know that he stands for peace and means no harm whatsoever. This is evident when he signs the letter, “Yours for the cause of Brotherhood and Peace”.

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