In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenges the preconceived notions of his fellow clergymen and argues that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (King, 1963). Dr. King had been chastised by a number of clergy in Birmingham as an outside agitator stirring up trouble in their city. Early on, he explained his idea that no citizen of the United States can be considered an agitator when protesting or acting with regard to something else happening with the country’s borders. Furthermore, King argues that what happens in Birmingham affects Atlanta and Washington, D.C. and New York City. In many ways, he was arguing the idea of globalization and world conscious long before they became buzz words and the way of the world. King argued that as a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he had no option other than to fight for social justice throughout the South.
After justifying himself to the other clergy, King explains why the demonstrations for which he was arrested are taking place in Birmingham. In gentle rebuke, he points out that the clergymen have condemned the conditions that resulted because of the protest but have never taken time to rebuke the conditions that required the demonstrations take place. “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case, “King wrote (King 1963).
Despite those conditions, leaders within the African American community approached city leaders attempting to find a path to social justice via the law. They were humored and strung along by the establishment, but never did the city try to make any good faith effort to try to change the conditions. And, at the time of King’s letter, being born an African American in Alabama in general and Birmingham in particular virtually guaranteed a lack of rights. “Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants — for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttles worth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.” (King, 1963).
The signs were the overt racism inherent in Birmingham, but the roots in the region went much deeper. African Americans were consistently denied the right to vote, sometimes to the point that in counties where the majority of the population was black, not a single African American was registered to vote. King argues clearly that these maneuvers to hold people back from racial equality were often being done within the confines of the law and that was a problem in and of it.
He further argues that taking direct action will spur the community toward negotiation and an effort to change. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” (King, 1963) If no action is taken, King agues, then the status quo does not change. People are not prompted to change, or even to negotiate for improvement if there is no impetus for their effort.
“The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved South land been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” (King, 1963). It is important to note that throughout his call to action, King reiterates that the direct actions should be non-violent designed to make people uncomfortable and disrupt daily routines, not aggressive or threatening.
He answers complaints that the protest came too soon after a city election for the newly elected government to have any impact on the old ways. The problem with waiting for someone to take action is that you are always waiting and nothing changes. “The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor. will bring the millennium to Birmingham.
While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. (King, 1963). King points to the emerging nations of the world, able to fight for their freedom from colonial oppressors and get it, and then remarks at the “horse and buggy” pace the United States is making within her own borders to promote equality (King, 1963). “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.”(King, 1963)”
He justifies his actions in terms of the law. This is perhaps the most powerful of King’s arguments outside the “I Have a Dream” speech. It sets the tone for his later work and justifies the Civil Rights Movement in one fell swoop. “Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.
One may won ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all” (King, 1963).
In this short passage, King makes an eloquent and accurate plea for civil disobedience and encourages people to take the action needed to make a difference with regard to changing the law. His argument is that sometimes the law is simply so unjust that if a person does not take radical action to change the law, he is supporting injustice.
The idea that a law could be justly applied but be inherently unjust was illogical, he argued. “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (King, 1963).
He further argues that the type of civil disobedience he is recommending was first practiced in biblical times by Shadrach and his compatriots when they faced the lion’s den rather than renouncing their faith. He then goes on to chastise the church leadership for their inaction and lack of support for the African American community. “Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” (King, 1963). He argues that the church should in supporting core Christian values work toward the development of equality for all people and that in failing to do so they have ignored their Christian duty.
King’s letter was intended as an answer to critics, a reply to those who did not understand the reality of the Southern African American and the way that they were being discriminated against. Instead, it served as an outline for social justice and for achieving equality. By detailing how and why people of color and white Americans should stand together to fight for equality, he took the effort for equality out of the streets and back alleys to the headlines.
His definitions regarding an unjust law made the difference philosophically and religiously for many people. Many people who had previously considered themselves good people suddenly found that they could no longer hide behind the legality of the situation. Instead, King forced them to take the issue of equality to heart and think of it from their conscious and not just from the law. They were no longer able to argue that it was okay by the law so that must make it right. King found the right words to explain that equality was everyone’s responsibility and that unless people were willing to work for justice, no one would have it.
Thesis: In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenges the preconceived notions of his fellow clergymen and argues that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (King, 1963
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
I. Summary and historical context
II. Why Birmingham?
a. Worst racism in the South
b. Negotiation failed
c. New leadership might mean an opportunity for change.
III. Why direct action?
a. Civil disobedience draws attention
b. Unjust laws should not be obeyed
c. Christian history of action
King’s letter was intended as an answer to critics, a reply to those who did not understand the reality of the Southern African American and the way that they were being discriminated against. Instead, it served as an outline for social justice and for achieving equality.