An Analysis of Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King




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An Analysis of Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr is considered one of the most famous civil rights advocates across the United States in the 20th century. He is celebrated by many as the father of the modern civil rights advocacy, and he made it his mission to fight for equality in a time when the black race was considered weak and less important by many white supremacists. He organized and led many civil disobedience groups in the country in fighting for the liberation of black people from slavery and encouraged them to champion for their rights. For many black people who lived in the United States, he was a hero who promised emancipation while for those who promoted white supremacists, he was just another stubborn black man who wanted blacks to have rights like whites. Due to his numerous activism activities, Dr. King found himself at loggerheads with the government, and he was arrested and sent to prison at the Birmingham prison. He was an inspiration for black people who he wanted to save from the chains of slavery. A group of white clergy that was opposed to Dr. King’s advocacy message and activities sent a letter to him condemning him, and this did not sit well with him. He wrote a reply to the Alabama clergy condemning them for being hypocrites and justifying his activism.

Dr. King wrote the letter lamenting that those who had not suffered torment and problems like the black race in America could not either understand or acknowledge the need for equal rights for all people. Dr. King was aware of the issues that black people facing since the first slave was brought into America and knew that it was up to each of them to rise and fight for their rights and end segregation based on the skin colour. For him, the fight against racism and economic exploitation of black people was a noble cause that he was willing to pursue to death (King). Dr. King did not want the prison walls to be the excuse for the failure of his mission to enhance equality and build an America that everyone was proud of calling home. In his letter to the Alabama clergy that came to be commonly known as the ‘letter from the Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. King outlined the main reasons why he did advocacy work. He highlighted the need for racial equality, and he justified his civil rights action. He looked up to convince the moderate whites on the need to support reforms that allowed each American to live a fulfilling life and exposed the hypocrisy in the six clergymen who wrote a letter to him.

As a civil right and leader, Dr. King concerned by some of the issues the six white clergymen raised although he responded in a diplomatic tone to appeal to the moderate whites. He was aware that he needed the support of white moderates to succeed in his quest for constitutional reforms and if he responded harshly to the letter, his objectives would be in jeopardy (Dyer &Kevin). He did not want a situation where the tension between whites and blacks would be high hence eroding the support of moderates. Dr. King had known to accommodate divergent views, and he often wanted to be a uniting factor between the black people and the whites, and he never wanted to alienate himself. Dr. King knew that the six white clergymen had no right to condemn his civil rights movement, but he was willing to defend it although in a manner that was lawful and upheld the rule of law. He did not want to use injustice to fight injustice.

To pass him views to the clergymen, Dr. King used an interesting analogy to appeal to them. He knew that most of the white moderates were Christians and using a Bible analogy gave him a better chance of speaking to their hearts, and this would enhance his ambitions. He also knew that it would be easier for the white clergymen to relate to a Bible analogy as they were familiar with the Bible and its teachings. He explained to them that injustices had no place in the modern society and even proclaimed that, ‘An injustice anywhere would mean injustice everywhere.’ The letter focused on dismissing the myths and misconceptions held by the white supremacists about his civil rights advocacy movement and explain that Christians should help fight the injustice. Dr. King knew that many white Christians were against slavery and racial segregation, although the methods that they used to address their displeasure made little impact. Christians believed that black people should be patient and wait for an equal society without the need for demanding for it while he thought that it was up to the blacks to fight for their rights (Sherriff). He hoped that the white moderates would support him in declaring that the time for racial segregation was over and there was a need to build a just society where everybody was equal under the law.

The letter from the Birmingham jail was not only an eye-opener to the black people, but it also served as a warning shot to the white supremacists that it was time for an equal society. The letter advanced the race debate that had taken off and invited the white moderates to join hands with civil rights advocacy groups in building a better future for future generations. Dr. King did not hesitate to make it clear that there was no more room for racial segregation in America and that every individual had a responsibility of fighting the injustices that were being perpetuated on minority groups. The letter had a personal touch, and most people would relate with the concerns that were bothering Dr. King, and he hoped this was to help increase the support base for his movement.

When he wrote the letter from his jail cell, Martin Luther Dr. King was emphasizing that the time for change was now. He wrote the letter to criticize his distractors who included the eight clergymen who believed the change was necessary, but it was not yet the right time to demand it. The clergy had criticized him through a publication in the Birmingham News, and he found it prudent to respond to them and all those who were not willing to support the cloud of change. In response, Dr. King acknowledged that most of his critics were people who had not been affected by racial segregation and could not understand the challenges that the issue presented to the black community. He knew that some of his critics believed that they were first-class citizens and considered the minority races like black as second-class citizens, and this did not settle down well with him (Kaplan). The fact that the status quo favoured the whites allowed the white clergymen not to be worried about their wellbeing or that of their children. This was not the case for Dr. King and his followers who wanted their grandchildren to inherit a country that valued all its citizens without considering some as more important than others. He was willing to bring the message of change to the masses that had been oppressed by the current status of things and the letter from the Birmingham jail help him convey the message.

In his letter, Dr. King cast doubt on the federal government’s policies in addressing the issue of racial segregation that had become entrenched in American society. The letter raised fundamental questions that had not been directed by law by outlining the injustice that was occurring in the black community. Although it was not a written law at the time, he felt that it had become the unspoken law that needed to be addressed urgently by law. By the fact that segregation had alienation the black community, in the eyes of Martin Luther King, the Constitution had failed to protect the vulnerable people in society. He believed that people were equal, and we need to protect each other’s rights. He advocated for the St. Augustine’ logic on the law where he believed that if a law was unjust, it should not be considered to be an actual law and it doesn’t need to be followed. He wanted the masses to oppose the oppressive laws that supported segregation.

The letter from Martin King Jr from the Birmingham jail did also highlights the importance of individual action in ensuring that change was achieved (Sails-Dunbar). He acknowledged that time would not change anything, and it would not help if everybody sat down and wait for things to change for the better. He wanted to provoke every person to action and bring the moment of action. In his letter, Dr. King emphasized that every person, men and women, had a role to play in fighting for equality. In ensuring that everybody was involved, Dr. King denounced violence as a means of demanding for justice as it would have caused injustice to innocent people. He was a firm believer in civil disobedient, and he considered it the most appropriate method that people could use to bring change into their societies. This did not mean that Dr. King would not use force to ensure that the black race was uplifted from the chains of segregation. He acknowledged that people could break laws that enhanced injustice. He further argued that freedom and liberation is never giver on a silver platter; instead people have to make sacrifices to ensure that future generations enjoy the privileges they are pursuing. He considered himself a firm believer in the rule of law and that even if he was sent to prison, it was because the law was perpetuating injustice and Dr. King considered it null and void.

In his letter, Dr. King did also acknowledge the specific role that organized religion groups had in fighting segregation in the United States. Although the reply was to the white Alabama clergymen, he made particular reference to what the church and all other religious groups needed to do in promoting equality. He did not only emphasize on the fact that racial profiling and discrimination was immoral, further explaining that it was against the necessary religious foundations that many people believed in. He gave a Bible analogy to drive his point home and ensure that other Christian ministers would advocate for change just like he did. He even gave reference to the Christian missionaries who were selfless and put their lives in line in aiming to ensure justice prevailed. He explained that most churches in the south would end up being irrelevant if they did not call out segregation for what it was.

The letter from the Birmingham jail is one of the most iconic letters that Dr. Martin Luther King wrote. Although there were many letters he wrote, this attracted the most attention, and it is because of the time that it was written and the place it was written. Dr. King received much appreciation from many people who believed in the cause of pursuing justice for the black race and remains one of the most celebrated civil rights activists. He was the epitome of the black emancipation in the mid-twentieth century and forever he will remain as a national icon in the champion for civil rights.

Works Cited

Dyer, Justin Buckley, and Kevin E. Stuart. “Rawlsian Public Reason and the Theological Framework of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”.” Politics and Religion 6.1 (2013): 145-163.

Kaplan, Howard. “The Rule of Law and Civil Disobedience: The Case Behind King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Social Education 77.3 (2013): 117-121.

King, Martin Luther, and C. T. Vivian. “Letter from Birmingham jail.” Arguing about law (2013): 254-264.Sails-Dunbar, Tremaine T. “A Case Study Analysis of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Conceptualizing the Conscience of King through the Lens of Paulo Freire.” Pursuit-The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 8.1 (2017): 14.

Sherriff, Gina. “Letter from Birmingham Jail Letter from Birmingham Jail.” LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 6 Dec 2018. Web. 2 Dec 2019.