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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
Martin Luther King Jr. ‘ letter, written while he was incarcerated in Birmingham jail during the 1963 campaign against racial segregation, became a symbol of a fight against injustice inflicted upon African Americans throughout history. In it, King speaks about the need to exert non-violent resistance to racism, calls upon all people to stand up against unfair laws, which is, in his view, a moral obligation of everyone. The letter became an important document that was later printed and reprinted in newspapers, and, finally, even published in a book. King uses logic and rational arguments to advocate for the abolition of racial segregation and injustice and presents emotionally charged stories of actual people affected by unjust laws to appeal to his audience on both rational and emotional level. He invites people to take action, instead of patiently waiting for courts to deliver justice because he knows that there are people who do not have the luxury of waiting as their lives are being destroyed by racial injustice. And, every new day when nothing happens in the direction of changing the laws and the way black people are treated, is a day when someone suffers tremendously.
The American South was traditionally the part of the country where racial segregation was the strongest and the most long-lasting and resilient to change. The town of Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most racially divided parts of the country. For this reason, it was chosen as a venue for peaceful demonstrations organized by the Civil Rights Movement in the form of marches and sit-ins. A Birmingham judge issued an injunction against basically any form of civil disobedience, making these demonstrations illegal and subject to police intervention. Nevertheless, the protestors continued their demonstrations disobeying the judge’s orders. Consequently, many of them were sent to jail, Martin Luther King Jr. included. He witnessed extremely harsh and unfair treatment of black prisoners, men, and women, young and old, who were severely beaten and denied food for no particular reason.
During King’s incarceration, a group of eight Alabama clergymen published a statement in the local newspaper. The article was entitled “A Call for Unity” and spoke against King and his demonstrations. They did not contest the existence of social injustice but objected to the way African Americans fought for their rights. Outraged by the text, King started writing his answer on the margins of the newspaper and later continued on pieces of paper supplied to him by his attorneys. As a minister, he was able to argue his case on the religious grounds, but also on a political, legal and historical basis. As a black man he described oppression of African Americans from personal experience, and as a skilled speaker he was able to make strong points using powerful language and provoking an emotional response from the readers. Responding to clergymen’ accusation of being an outsider in the Birmingham community, he argued that no American can be an outsider anywhere within the boundaries of the United States. To the objection that the demonstrations would only create tensions in the society, he replied that tension accomplished by nonviolent means was a “constructive” one, meaning that it compelled the white people in power to negotiate with the protestors. He felt that nothing could be gained unless it was strongly and persistently demanded. The clergymen objected to the situation of social unrest brought on by the demonstrations but failed to acknowledge the underlying causes that led to the protest. King recognizes the unfortunate nature of the events unfolding in the streets of Birmingham but deems the reasons that led to these events (which involve unjust treatment of black people) to be even more unfortunate.
As for the argument that the members of the African-American community should be patient because the society will eventually change and become more fair and egalitarian, he responded that only those who had never actually experienced discrimination and segregation can call for patience. In his opinion, progress not only takes time but also determines the action and intense efforts of the good-willed people. Undoubtedly, negotiations are the best way to proceed when a group of people seeks to be granted something, in this case, equal treatment and equal opportunity. But if the conditions in the society are such that they allow unlimited postponement of having to deal with difficult issues, direct action is sometimes required to instigate the necessary dialog. King sees the demonstrations in Birmingham as a way of dramatizing the situation to a degree that it can no longer be overlooked.
The Southern white community widely accepted discrimination on all levels. It included non-acceptance of black people in white people’s churches, the application of double standards of law depending on a person’s skin color, inaccessibility of certain public buildings and playgrounds for people of color. The existence of signs displayed in public places indicating the racial division of the society was extremely offensive to black people, while white population generally saw no problem with this practice, and embraced racial segregation readily. The laws that allowed this kind of unfavorable treatment of African Americans were unjust according to King, and he found it to be morally acceptable to disobey them since they pertained to people of different skin color in different ways. Also, since black people were not allowed to vote, they did not have a say in endorsing or formulating the law. King argued that only just laws were in accordance with the law of God.
Martin Luther King came to Birmingham hoping that the white clergymen of this community would see the cause he fought for as just and would support it by serving as a channel through which the power structure could be reached. This did not happen, much to his disappointment. He criticized the Baptist church for its position on racial issues because he felt it undermined the main idea of Christianity of all people being equal as God’s children. King was offended by the clergymen’s superficial acceptance of black people’s civil rights, which was, in fact, just another form of downright dismissal, perhaps a more polite one. People, who agree that the goals of the protesters are just, but find the methods of direct action unacceptable, could just as well say that they do not support their cause at all. There is no right way to protest or no right time to do it as far as those who need to make concessions to enable a nondiscriminatory treatment of black people are concerned. According to King, belittling African Americans by telling them to wait until the time for change is right, implies believing that one can set a timetable for someone else’s life. Saying that a black man will get his freedom at a time of a white man’s convenience means validating segregation.
King calls upon the white churches to welcome African Americans and allow them to participate in services without being segregated in any way. He publicly speaks about cases of violence against black people, which include beatings, prosecution and setting their houses and churches on fire, condemning all of these actions strongly. The demonstrations King took part in actually represented a middle ground between doing nothing, which was a course of action strongly advocated by the white community, and Black Nationalism in its violent and hateful forms. Civil disobedience manifested by peaceful demonstrations was not socially disruptive but meant to cause a reconsideration of awarding the same civil rights to the members of the black community as white people had enjoyed for centuries. Oppression cannot be upheld indefinitely. It is in the nature of the oppressed to fight for their freedom. If it is not granted to them willingly, it will eventually be taken by force. This is exactly what Reverend King tried to avoid by insisting on peaceful demonstrations.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s style of writing is exceptionally powerful; he had a talent for using strong words to provoke emotions and make white people more sensitive towards the injustice, suffered by African Americans. He argued that justice cannot be called so if it is not the same for everyone; if it protects the rights of one group of people more than those of another. As a well-spoken and educated man, he answered the clergymen with the same level of finesse, on an academic, religious and social level. All through the letter, he emphasized the word injustice, seeking to make a lasting impression on his readers. Furthermore, he described examples of specific individuals who suffered police brutality or unfair treatment solely on the basis of their skin color. He spoke of an old black man being pushed around and cursed at by white policemen, or a young black woman being kicked and shoved simply for standing in someone’s way. Unjust treatment of African Americans does not only affect adults. It also has an emotional impact on black children who, due to their young age, are still unable to understand why they are not allowed to play in the same amusement parks as white children, or why they are forced to sit in the back of a bus. Black children grow up feeling like second-rate citizens, somehow inferior to their white peers, which is extremely detrimental to their self-confidence and limits their life options, and the segregation is based on nothing more than their skin color.
Instead of commending the police for their success in breaking up the demonstration, King praises his fellow protesters for their courage and willingness to suffer for a just cause. He acknowledges that the demonstrations break existing laws, however, unjust they might be, and therefore the protesters are liable to punishment. He does not advocate disregarding laws as this would lead to anarchy. By being prepared to go to jail for a just cause, people make a sacrifice with the intention of securing better future for their children. By ignoring their own safety and not taking into account personal consequences they might be faced with, they potentially help push the society in a favorable direction, one of equality for all its citizens.
The letter written during Reverend King’s time of confinement in Birmingham jail was rather long, and it expressed his deep sense of frustration with the way the civil rights of African Americans were ignored, and segregation continued despite it being unconstitutional. He finished it, however, on a positive note with a hope that the nightmare of racial prejudice will soon be over, together with the lack of understanding between the white and the black community that has existed for ages. He is optimistic that brotherhood will eventually prevail, allowing all men to live together in harmony and making America a nation of exceptional beauty and freedom for all.
In the aftermath of the Birmingham protests and Martin Luther King’s famous letter from jail, the demands placed by the Civil Rights Movements were given more attention by the American public. This, in turn, led to the Civil Rights Act acceptance in 1964, as well as subsequent laws that condemned the oppression on the basis of race in the American society. The letter was exceptionally persuasive and managed to attract a lot of people to join the protests. The police eventually took extreme measures to contain the protests, including violence which was seen as police brutality and widely condemned. At around the same time the Civil Rights Act was passed, King, aged only 35 at this point, and quite deservedly received the Nobel Prize for Peace.