Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail

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Martin Luther King

In his letter, Martin Luther King challenged a public statement written by 8 white clergymen who claimed that the de-segregation movement in Alabama was moving too fast.

The statement was titled, “A Call for Unity,” and in it the 8 Birmingham area clergymen advised King that the street protests he led against racial segregation were “unwise and untimely.” The clergymen agreed that racial injustices existed, but they counseled patience, and argued that implementation of integration should be administered through the judicial system.

Dr. King Strongly Disagreed With the 8 Clergymen

King wrote his letter of response to the 8 clergymen from a cell in the Birmingham City Jail, where he was confined after being arrested during a peaceful demonstration. Dr. King began his letter refuting the clergymen’s statement with an almost conciliatory tone, which offered them brief praise. Dr. King noted that he was writing to them in part because their, “criticism was sincere and they were men of genuine good will.”

However, in the very next couple of paragraphs, King switches to language that can leave no doubt about the unwavering commitment that he brought to the fight against racial injustice.

Letter From Birmingham Jail is a Logical Yet Poetic Argument

Dr. King’s letter is a powerful collection of statements about why he was in Birmingham, the unjust laws that persecuted Negro people in Alabama and the sense of momentum that the civil rights movement was gathering at the time. It is a document full of well thought-out arguments that are logical beyond contention and poetic at the same time. But the magnitude of Dr. King’s wisdom becomes especially clear through his uncanny ability to pinpoint the truth through the use of very short statements.

Dr. Martin Luther King Fought Injustice Wherever He Found It

One of the criticisms brought by the clergymen against Dr. King was that he and his followers were outside agitators, who were stirring up trouble in an area that was none of their concern. He answered this charge in a number of ways, but his shortest rebuttal is the most powerful of them all. Dr. King contended that he could not remain idle in Atlanta and be unconcerned by events in Birmingham because, as he put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Given the increased facility that we now have for communications around the globe, Dr. King’s assertion about the permeating nature of injustice carries even more weight today than it did in 1963.

History Was on Dr. King’s Side

Throughout this letter, Dr. King effectively uses historic figures and references to defend his movement. At one point he was criticized by the 8 clergymen for his willingness to break laws that limited his protesting activities and yet, at the same time, he advocated that de-segregation laws should be obeyed. To answer to that charge he drew two parallels from the past. Dr. King reminded the clergymen that all the horrors of the holocaust were “legal” according to Hitler, and conversely, the actions of Hungarian freedom fighters who tried to break the yoke of Soviet occupation in 1956, were “illegal” by the standards set in Moscow.

Dr. King makes other arguments as well, but he gets right to the crux of the matter with, once again, a very short statement. King quotes St. Augustine when he says, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Freedom Was Dr. King’s Goal

“An oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” said Dr. King. The yearning for freedom and equality will eventually turn to action. Progress towards the goal of freedom instills a sense of pride, dignity and direction that gives moral authority to those who follow the cause. Dr. King cites a 72 year old woman who sums it up in a beautiful and profound statement. When asked how she felt after she and her people refused to ride on segregated busses, the old woman said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”