In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., the head of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, wrote a letter to eight ministers in Birmingham, Alabama from the jail cell he was sitting in. In hiIntroductions letter, now known as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, King was responding to the other ministers’ public appeal to King and others to stop their peaceful demonstrations against the unjust laws of segregation. More than simply trying to justify his actions, though, King’s letter makes a strong appeal for more nonviolent demonstrations such as those he had just held. He says this is necessary to gain white people’s attention, is morally necessary, and is essential to release growing tensions between the races. King closes his letter by criticizing his fellow ministers for not recognizing the desperate condition of their people. Instead of arguing, Martin Luther King Jr. suggests in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the ministers join together in nonviolent protest by arguing that something needed to be done to get attention regarding the injustice and to relieve the tension in the black community and that this was a moral imperative.
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The first argument King makes is that many white people were not even aware of the plight of the black people following the Emancipation Proclamation. He pointed out that they were unaware of the unfair practices and policies that kept black people in the south from attaining any degree of success outside of their community and wouldn’t put up with it if they did know. King realized that staging nonviolent protests could force the nation’s attention, particularly the white population’s attention, on the situation in the South. He explained, “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” (King, 10). He reasoned correctly that if the rest of the nation was forced to realize the escalating nature of the situation in the South, the pressure would be placed on the politicians to take definite action regarding the unconstitutional laws that had been devised to continue black oppression or repeal those laws that continued segregation. Within this argument, King also makes a direct appeal to the politicians by reminding them of several recent promises that have been broken by the politicians and merchants of Birmingham. He suggests now is the time to fulfill the natural right of all people to be treated equally by rising in peaceful protest and they will receive the support of the free-loving nation.
Making his case about the relative correctness of disobeying laws designed to keep the black people from demonstrating, King called on the basic codes of morality that had been discussed by some of the world’s most respected historical moralists: “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, 15). It was clear that the segregation laws of the south were in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court ruling that granted equal rights to people of color. As such, King did not feel peaceful demonstration could be considered breaking the law. He defined moral law as laws designed to protect the rights of the people and the community. The segregation laws were used only as a means of subjugation, oppression, and degradation. Because these laws were not applied equally among the population, they were deemed both immoral and unjust. King reasoned that to break an unjust and immoral law is acting in a moral and just manner for the good of the community, especially if this can be completed in a peaceful, kindly manner.
One of King’s final arguments was that the community required a positive course of action to release the negative emotion that accumulated as a result of segregation. He knew that violence was likely to erupt if something wasn’t done soon to channel the energy. He states, “the Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him March” (King, 29). Again appealing to basic morality, King suggests it is better to organize a peaceful demonstration that siphons some of the negative energy from the black community while gaining support from the previously ill-informed white community rather than to blindly allow the eruption of a racial war. King relates the extremist label that had been pinned on him to numerous religious and humanitarian leaders. He asks, “so the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists” (King, 30).
King closes his letter by expressing his disappointment with his community’s church leaders who have failed to recognize not only the injustice being suffered by their people. He acknowledges the church’s success in keeping violence from exploding in the streets but also points out the need for more positive action. He says, “in deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church. There can be no deep disappointment where there in not deep love” (King, 38). Because he loves the church so much, he cannot but feel bitterly disappointed that they have failed their people by hiding behind the “anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows” (King, 34). He ends the letter by appealing to his fellow ministers to join him in his cause.
Through every stage of his argument, King appeals to the principles of basic morality to try to make his fellow ministers see reason. He points out that it is only through peaceful actions that the morality of the white people will finally recognize the deplorable conditions that existed in the south for the blacks. He also convincingly argues that people should not uphold immoral laws and should not be encouraged by their moral leaders to do so. One of his strongest arguments is the morality of preventing violence by channeling negative energy into positive progress and action. Through these arguments, he can shame the church leaders for their lack of responsibility and begs them to help find solutions that will allow their congregations to live truly equal lives with equal opportunity for the future.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” (1963). Nobel Prizes.
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