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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.'

This paper would analyze Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. Written on April 16th, 1963, it captures Dr. King's feelings about nonviolence as a way of seeking social justice and equality for African Americans in Birmingham and the rest of the southern United States of America. It was later published in his 1964 book, "Why We Can't Wait." The letter was published in 1963, around the time the Birmingham Campaign began. After a decision to disobey a ruling by Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins, Dr. King, and a few other activists including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth were arrested while thousands of African Americans watched. He wrote the letter while in jail to address the pending matters around that period. Therefore, this essay aims to highlight the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter and the effectiveness of the message it conveys by laying out an analysis of various concepts he alludes to, the strength of his arguments and the overall message to his intended audience.

There are various key concerns that Dr. King alluded to in his letter. The first shall be the concept of justice. Contextually, the entire civil rights movement was established in search of justice for colored people so that eventually all Americans would enjoy equal rights. Dr. King was even arrested in his fight for justice to be granted to the colored people of Birmingham; one of the areas in the southern states with a very high level of civil and racial injustice. He states that “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…” in response to criticism of his presence in Birmingham (King 1). Dr. King understood that they would have to fight for justice by all means necessary and that all help was needed. He went on to explain that the injustices in Birmingham indirectly affected all other colored people, albeit indirectly.

In his letter, Dr. King disagrees the sentiments of his admonishers by pointing out that the system in place could not be trusted to ensure that the colored people achieved the justice they deserved. He explains how historically, the privileged groups seldom gave up their privilege voluntarily. For this, he states that “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…” (King 3). Hence, he strongly dismisses the notion that the system in place would do much to change things as they are. He goes even further to point out that the leaders in the front lines of the then upcoming election in Birmingham were both cuts from the same cloth of ‘segregationists’ hence their support and help could not be counted on (King 2). Hence, in their search for social justice and the defeat of racial prejudice, they had an active role to play. He also strongly dismisses the idea of waiting for things to even out with time because in his opinion things rarely ever change if nothing is done proactively and for this, he states that, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Another thematic concept that sticks out in the letter is Christianity and the role it plays in the civil rights movement. First of all, the Christian churches played key roles in conjunction with Christian rights movement throughout the southern states. An example of this relationship is shown in Dr. King’s letter in reference to the relationship of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Additionally, all through the letter, Dr. King alludes to the Bible to convey a lot of his points to his audience. He compares his decision to go to Birmingham and help out in the protests to that of Paul of Tarsus in his evangelical quests in the Greco-Roman territory. Another similar instance is that of him disagreeing with those who champion for more reserved ways of championing for civil rights who use the duration it took to spread Christianity to justify the slow reforms in civil rights. Additionally, he expresses disappointment in the southern Christians moderates who were mostly white in their increasingly ‘loud’ silence and reservation from commenting on the underlying matters of civil justice. He recognizes that contrary to when Christianity was in its budding stages and Christians faced persecution from the government in Europe, their efforts have paid over time and that now they enjoy a certain level of influence on the government in America (King 4). Hence, he points out that their silence at a point where their public stance would be of great help and their opposition in some cases as very disheartening. Of this, he states that “…some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many other have been more cautious than courageous have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows…” (King 7).

Additionally, the letter has elements of the concept of civil disobedience. Of this, Dr. King notes the importance of distinguishing between just and unjust laws. He states that the fact that for the most part, the laws of segregation are not right or just. He explains the effects of segregation on communities and individuals. He goes on to state that there exists a “moral responsibility” to disobey unjust laws and asserts St. Augustine’s statement that “an unjust law is no law at all.” These sentiments are further explained in the letter where he states that “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…” (King 3). For these reasons, the, therefore, asserts that it is right to disobey “segregation ordinances” for they are morally wrong. As further justification, he explains that Hitler was “legally” in his actions but wrong morally while Hungarian freedom fighters were deemed the opposite. Hence he stresses the importance of weighing the moral justifications of laws and rules before abiding by them.

The letter also exhibits various strengths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s arguing prowess. Various instances showcase his arguments’ maturity. The first of such instances is when he brings forth the issue of weighing the morality of laws before abiding by them (King 4). In the context of segregation laws and suppression, he states that every citizen has a mandate to follows the rules of the land. He, therefore, would not advocate for any sort of demonstrations that would break into violence, but in the case where laws threaten his first amendment right for civil demonstration then he would have to disobey the laws. He weighs both sides of the matter and chooses what seems right to him.

Another similar instance comes out when he is defending himself from criticism in regard to going to Birmingham. He states that he understands their reservations against his presence and actions (King 1). He also shows his recognition for their preferred way of fighting for civil rights. However, he also goes on to tell them that all hands were needed on deck if they were ever to get rid of racism. He goes on to explain that things as they were at the time, would hardly change if they did nothing about it. To reinforce his arguments, he states that through history, the oppressed and less privileges had to demand and fight for their rights (King 3). Additionally, he also presents a great argument in criticism of the efforts of Birmingham police officers in trying to suppress the civil rights movements. He explains that their reduced aggression was merely for the show but that they still acted unfairly behind the scenes. Of this action, he states that “…it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” (King 9). He states that in spite of the legal authority and mandate to protect the public, suppression was wrong and doing it in the protection of the law was just as wrong.

Additionally, the letter by Dr. King exhibits a great deal of sensitivity and recognition to his audience. First, he demonstrates his devotion to his admonishers and addresses their reservation to his actions (King 1). He also recognizes the impact of his letter to the civil rights movement given that he was a leader. For this, he ensured that he addressed various issues including the civil disobedience, justice and the importance of fighting for it and criticized the reserved Christians and suppressive laws and government officials.

In conclusion, the Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. King is very well done. It is no wonder that it has kept its intensity and gravity over the years. He ensured that he addressed all the essential issues while at the same making sure that he did not get his facts wrong and most importantly, he had a message for various key members in the struggle for civil liberty.

Work Cited.

King, M. L. Jr. (1963). Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Why We Can’t wait. Ed. 77-100. Accessed from www.kingpapers.org Martin Luther King Jr.’s Papers Project. 30 Jun. 17.

August 18, 2021

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