King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Summary

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with 52 other African-Americans set out on a quest to put an end to the segregation laws in the south. It was their mission to march into downtown Birmingham, Alabama to let their disapproval be known. This act of defiance was greeted by the immediate arrest of all of the protesters (Dr. King included). The arrest of the peaceful protesters caused a chain reaction which began with a letter drafted by the clergymen in Birmingham that advised the African-American population to stop their acts of civil disobedience. The letter appeared in the local Birmingham Newspaper.

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The second event in this chain of events was a response made by Dr. Martin Luther King and directed to African-Americans in the South. This letter entitled “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was significant in that it marked the turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and assured the African-Americans that their struggle for equal rights under the law should be hard-fought and one that will result in success at a later date. This letter assured the African-Americans that there was urgency in the situation and that there is a dire need for nonviolent actions to rid the country of immoral and unjust laws.

In his letter, Dr. King pointed out the African-Americans were growing tired of the current situation and there was a need for peaceful alternatives before the situation escalates to conditions where there is a likelihood of extreme physical violence and chaos. In his letter, he voiced his disappointment that the Church would make such a blatant attempt to squelch the fight for equal rights for all. He expressed the opinion that the Church had failed the populous and had not lived up to their responsibility as god-fearing people.

In his letter, Dr. King attempted to offer justification to the eight clergymen for protesting segregation. He begins his justification by saying “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”.

He continues with an explanation of the urgency of the situation by impressing the fact that African-Americans have been patient in seeking their equal treatment under the law and to wait any longer would be counterproductive. He goes on to state the delayed action was purposive and that the time had come to put a well-orchestrated plan into action. It was the stated goal of African-Americans to force the white politicians to enter into mutually beneficial negotiations and to treat the requests for desegregation with the utmost regard.

He goes on to add clarity to the situation experienced by African-Americans during this time by saying “past promises have been broken by the politicians and merchants of Birmingham and now is the time to fulfill the natural right of all people to be treated equal”. He further reiterates the fact that he does not want any violence or bloodshed, he simply wanted the unfair practices to come to an end and he wanted to see the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v The Board of Education be upheld.

Secondary to these demands, Dr. King addressed the assertion made by the Clergymen with regards to civil disobedience. The clergymen asserted that civil disobedience and breaking the laws as they stand was not the appropriate means for achieving the long-awaited changes. He simply said “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.”

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He was very adamant about the fact that he firmly believed that no laws were broken by their actions as the laws as they stood were morally repugnant and unsound. He pointed out that the main purpose of laws was to protect all of the people they prove applicable to and not to serve as a means of degrading or punish. As far as Dr. King was concerned, African-Americans will continue to fight for this worthy cause utilizing whatever non-violent means their leaders saw fit first. If the events as they were precluded the peaceful expression of disgust, the situation could get worst and the violence could escalate. This posed a great concern for Dr. King and he addressed this concern by illuminating the urgency of the situation.

In his letter, he expressed the notion that if civil disobedience served as an outlet for the African-Americans. He states “The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him March”. Framing this in a historical context and examining it from a psychological standpoint, one can see that if certain individuals are ignored, there is a tendency for those individuals to respond violently. Dr. King was not conceptualizing anything new. He was just alluding to the nature of the human race.

He goes on to express the notion that the “Negro Church” has played a significant part in the squelch of violence, however, there has been a level of complacency on the part of the clergymen who spoke up against the non-violent protests and marches. He embodied the feeling that their complacency has caused him great frustration and disappointment and expresses this by saying “in deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. There can be no deep disappointment where there in not deep love”. His disappointment is also evident when he says that the “Negro Church” has shielded itself from any real responsibility to its people by hiding behind “anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows”.

He concludes this letter by reiterating the fact that the Church owes a responsibility to its constituents. That responsibility is to assure that direct action is taken to end the injustice perpetrated against African-Americans and supported in the law. The inability to follow through with this responsibility puts every African-American in danger of an uprising that will be fueled by frustration. Overall, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is perhaps one of his most heartfelt expressions with regards to the civil rights movement. The general tone of the letter served to send a powerful message.

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