This letter was a response to a statement published by some clergymen from Alabama, citing King’s actions as untimely and unjust. Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama by then, experienced the highest segregation in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Strict laws made it illegal for different races to mix and socialize in most social settings. The letter is very important for American history since it expresses his feelings towards the unjust events during his time and is a reflection of the approach King took during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960s. This paper discusses the evidence King puts across to prove that racial injustice is immoral and his justification for breaking the law.
One of the reasons the King went to Birmingham is because of the heightened injustice in the city. More so, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights located in Birmingham was an affiliate member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he chaired. Since the shared staff and financial resources, he had to agree to their invitation. He defends his intrusion by saying that just as the eighteenth-century prophets who reached out to multitudes from far places to spread the gospel, he was here to spread the gospel of freedom and respond to their aid. King, as an advocate for justice, cannot stay comfortably in Atlanta while citizens in Birmingham suffer, since Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He further says no one should treat him like an outsider since the United States is one country and no one should be discriminated against on basis of his state of origin so long as he is within the boundaries of the nation.
Secondly, King says that racial segregation adversely affected the Negroes. Despite their complaints, the white power structure does not make any effort to curb the injustices against people of color. This neglect leaves the Negroes with no other alternative than the non-violent demonstrations. King points out that the clergymen failed to address the root problem in their letter, and concentrated on the effects arising from it.
The courts in Birmingham, too, bear the blame for the need to demonstrate. Just like the political leaders, the courts treated the Negroes in a tremendously unjust manner. Giving an example of the bomb attacks on the homes and churches of Negroes in the previous years, King says that the court failed to solve any of the bombing cases. Negroes did all they could to seek negotiation with the city leaders but the leaders declined to participate in good-faith negotiations.
Another reason for the defense is the broken promises made by the white leadership. During the negotiations, the leader promised to improve the conditions but later failed to implement them as agreed. For instance, the leaders of the economic forum promised to eliminate the stores bearing racial signs. However, they failed to honor the promise. On the contrary, they removed a few signs for a short time and later returned them. This and other past experiences deemed the hopes of Negroes and disappointed them. This led to the preparation for direct action, whereby the Negroes would present their bodies in order to influence the conscience of local Birmingham and the national community.
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Regarding the clergymen’s accusation of untimely timing, King said that these injustices have dwelled for so long and there are many instances where their pleas were postponed. The best time for direct action was during the Easter season since it is the main shopping period of the year, second from Christmas. Since the main consequence of direct-action would be economic withdrawal, this would pressurize the merchants to make a change. Additionally, they had aided the community by postponing the program until the mayoral elections were over. This helped reduce the disruption of the exercise, even though they did not have equal voting rights. It also gave time for the new leader, Mr. Bowell, to act against segregation but he did not.
Throughout history, the majority groups rarely give up their privileges easily. King says that the less privileged groups are always told to wait but for the U.S., the wait was more than 340 years before the time of direct action. Other parts of the world like Africa and Asia were quickly gaining freedom, but the minority groups in the U.S. experienced all sorts of brute attitudes ranging from bad treatment by police to poverty.
King acknowledges that negotiations are better than direct action, but in the case of the injustices, non-violent direct action intensifies tension and creates a pressure that forces the community, which has been neglecting the negotiations for a long time, to confront the underlying issue. The tension, he says, is not violent; it is a constructive tension that fosters growth. Nonviolent tension helps raise the society from racism and prejudice to brotherhood and understanding.
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Another reason to break the law was that the laws were unjust. In the letter, King says that one should obey the just laws and disobey the unjust ones. Unjust laws do not conform to the moral law or God’s law. King led his people to disobey the laws that degraded human personality and were implemented by the majority to oppress the minority (Hall K., 2006). The segregation statutes damaged personality, giving the whites a false sense of superiority and the Negroes, a sense of inferiority. Segregation, therefore, is socially, economically, and politically sinful. The Supreme Court made a just law in 1954, but it was not implemented. Though the Negroes had a right to vote, the white leadership restricted them from exercising their right. Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Bible disobeyed the unjust law King was willing to give up his life for justice to prevail.
The church, too, had lost its power. It had turned its face from the fight for justice. King says that some bishops and ministers have dismissed some of the members of the church congregation for their participation in the demonstrations. Before, Christians did anything they could and were ready to suffer for their beliefs. However, the present church was weak and its voice was ineffectual. The white church has shown nothing except for some laxity on these issues. They lie dormant while the congregation suffers segregation, racism, poverty, and violence from the police. Thus, King was bound to take the law into his hands and mobilize his people.
Additionally, people have lost faith in America due to racial discrimination. However, King’s stand is that the oppressed will not remain oppressed forever (Long M.G. 2002). Since they had tried all other correct means to negotiate, nonviolent demonstrations were the only solution at this stage. The demonstrations were not to disrupt peace or solve the problems, but as a mere means to access the whites for proper negotiation.
In conclusion, King used the article Letter from Birmingham Jail to defend his intention for breaking the law by responding to the critical issues projected by the clergymen. The letter reflects the intensity of racial injustices and prejudices against the Negroes at the time he was in jail. King declares that some of the reasons why he broke the law were the unjust laws; the Negroes had waited for so long albeit with false promises from the white leadership. In addition, the church was weak and reluctant to fight for its people; racial segregation was unjust and morally wrong, and the courts failed to protect the rights of the people. Additionally, the racial statutes adversely affected the Negroes while the non-violent demonstrations were the only alternative left for the Negroes to demand the protection of their human rights.