The “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is, perhaps, one of the most famous letters in entire American history. Written by Marin Luther King, JR. after being imprisoned, it addresses the problems of racism, inequality, and staggering injustice in American society. Focused on the idea of equality as the main tool in fighting racism and ending the oppression of African Americans, the letter captures with its unique combination of emotional appeal and clear reasoning.
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The letter starts with the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of concerns raised by clergymen, who believed that MLK’s actions were not aggressive enough to establish the movement and its goals. Demanding immediate action, a significant number of African American clergymen started doubting MLK and the fact that he had any plan whatsoever when starting his Birmingham protests, as well as the movement, in general (King). In turn, MLK argued that the specified doubts undermined the very spirit of the movement and challenged the opportunity to establish a peaceful dialogue.
As the letter continues, MLK explains that he endeavors to further the plight of African American people for equal rights and freedoms, and for the right to be treated with dignity. In his letter, MLK dissects the main cause of the protests, namely, the presence of systemic racism and oppression in American society. Simultaneously, the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” outlines that violent uprising will not change the status quo; instead, only peaceful protests will get the African American community to the desired state of equity and equality within American society.
Moreover, the letter responds to the accusations of focusing solely on Birmingham and refusing to move to other cities where similar actions are needed. As a retort to these complaints, MLK simply states that he is needed in Birmingham presently: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta” (King). Therefore, any further attempts at changing the location would imply a deviation from the plan and, thus, the ultimate failure of the movement. Consequently, it is vital for MLK to remain in Birmingham and focus on concentrated racism observed in its environment as opposed to moving to the areas where racial tensions are less intense.
In addition to the dissatisfaction with the clergy, MLK also mentions his thorough disappointment with the changes in the attitudes of white people who used to call themselves the supporters of the African American liberation movement. According to MLK, while the specified demographic would claim that they would support African American people through thick and thin, the development of the lightest social tensions made them immediately change their tune and become significantly less vocal about their support of African Americans. The described attitudes had led to the development of what MLK described as an “unconscious bitterness toward white people” in the African American population (King). Lamenting the specified hypocritical change, MLK addresses a significant part of his letter to white supporters of his movement.
The combination of unapologetically logical reasoning and the emotional turmoil in the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” makes it a particularly compelling piece and explains why it has become the foundational document in the fight against racial segregation. The “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” represents an attempt at reconciling the unique philosophy of MLK’s nonviolent protests and the demands of the clergymen, who were requiring a more forceful action. Therefore, the letter retains its place in African American history as a crucial work that formed the identity of the movement.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Africa.UPenn.edu, 1963. Web.
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