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"Letter from Birmingham Jail": African Americans' Rights Violation

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Written by Martin Luther King, Jr., while detained in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell for protesting segregation, this open letter to members of the clergy was published in newspapers throughout the United States. The letter critiqued the idea that civil rights demonstrators should wait until a later time to pursue racial justice and that it was immoral for protesters to break the law. King argued that there are two types of laws—justs laws and unjust laws— and that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

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King was a descendant of a family of preachers. He grew up, developing exceptional oratorical skills and personal courage which would make an impression across the nation. In 1955, he and other civil rights activists were arrested after leading a boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, transportation company which required nonwhites to surrender their seats to whites, and stand or sit at the back of the bus. Over the following decade, King wrote, spoke and organized nonviolent protests and mass demonstrations to draw attention to racial discrimination and demand civil rights legislation to protect the rights of African-Americans. It was around this time King now turned his views towards Birmingham, Alabama, which was deemed the most segregated city in the nation at the time.

In April 1963, King organized a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. Since the end of World War II, there had been 60 unsolved bombings of African American churches and homes. What followed were further boycotts, sit-ins and marches. This resulted in Bull Connor, head of the Birmingham police department, to use fire hoses and dogs on the demonstrators, with millions witnessing the images on television. Unfortunately, King was arrested, but it was in his favor, as he was flooded with support for him and his cause across the nation and the globe. It was during this time when he would begin to write his famous letter to birmingham.

King’s criticisms of the moral choices made by moderates are reflected in his letter where he asserts how the “white moderate” was one of the worst offenders in his pursuit for freedom. He explains how moderates may support the cause for freedom, but didn’t support the moral methods to execute it. He stated, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.’ Such a person is, according to King, someone ‘who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’’ Ultimately, King wrote that good willed people who understand is more frustrating than someone who doesn’t at all, as it appears more “bewildering.” According to King, it could be discerned that the “white moderate” is one who favored convenience and “negative peace” suggesting why social tensions were low despite the existing social issues.

King believed that his moral responsibility, in the presence of unjust laws, were reason enough to act the way he did and advocate for similar civil disobedience. At first, King denounced any extremism in his action, but as time continued he later claimed “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” King would soon prompt the question “not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” It would become clear to anyone of his supporters that this kind of thinking is what prompted the change necessary for Congress to make the decision in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and a clear indication of King’s commitment to the Civil Rights movement.

King did not promote anarchy, given that he stated “I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist.” his intentions for readers was to practice their civil unrest peacefully and be willing to accept any consequences for their actions out of love. King stated, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” The process that is described is something King felt strongly about, as the goal of the protests was to force the situation, and “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” The moral responsibility of challenging unjust laws would have been clearly restricted, if misconstrued by either the protesters or the legal authorities.

To summarize, King finishes ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ on two main points; first he apologizes for its length and reminds his readers that he is sitting in a jail cell, with nothing else to do but ruminate on the conditions that have brought him there. Secondly, he expresses a desire to meet with the eight white clergymen who have criticized the protests—not as an African American or a protester, however, but as a fellow clergyman. The powerful message that King displays throughout his letter pulsates across the nation, with installment of the Civil Rights Act eventually passed in 1965 following Kings assassination. 

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