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A Leter from Birmingham Jail Analysis


Submitted By afromanzenmaster
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In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for protesting discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. During his time in jail, he wrote what became to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King wrote this letter to explain his actions to the other clergymen who disagreed with his protests and actions. This was very effective in getting more blacks, and even some whites, to join King’s group of peaceful protesters. It was effective because he appealed to the emotions of the reader, and he used vivid analogies to make the content of the letter easier to understand. The writing of this letter was a vital point in the Civil Rights Movement. After the letter was written, many people joined the Movement. Without this letter, the Civil Rights Movement may not have been the success it was. At the time this letter was written, the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to gain momentum. King had become the face of the fight against discrimination. People in the movement knew that they needed to start having bigger protests to gain statewide and national attention. So in April of 1963, King started doing lunch counter sit-ins, and later they marched on Birmingham City Hall. After the march on City Hall, King and many of the other protesters were arrested and put in jail. This is where King would write his letter.
He wrote the letter in response to other articles in the paper saying that the protests were unwise and untimely. There was a statement in a newspaper which was written by eight clergymen who titled it, “A Call for Unity.” They took a stand against the actions of King and his fellow protesters. They agreed that there was social injustice, but they agreed it was to be fought in courts and not in the streets. The clergyman also argued against the idea of “outsiders coming in.”(p. 800) The idea of the clergymen was that people should not do the sit-ins and march on the capitol, but they should let the court system take care of all the issues. It was also said that King did not need to come there and try and take control of the movement in Birmingham. In response, King wrote in the letter, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. (p 800)”
“My Dear Fellow Clergymen: (p 800)” may have been the way the beginning of the letter was worded, but this letter was not meant just for those clergymen. The target audience was anyone who would listen. He was calling out for anyone who was willing to stand up, not just for blacks’ rights, but because these were human rights. This is why he could not understand why moral people would not speak up and help the movement.
King condemned the people who were peaceful, but remained silent. He thought that people who took this route caused as much violence as he and his followers did, not because of what they did, but because of what they did not do. King knew if all the good, moral people would stand up with him and join the movement, they would get a lot more done. Unfortunately, many never rose to the occasion, and all the ones with ill will controlled. As a result of this, it took many years to finally get the movement to the point where it is when the letter was written.
King stresses non-violent action and protests in the letter. One reason was he was a pastor. Most Christians stay away from violent action unless it is truly necessary. Another reason is he wanted to eliminate the use of violence as a means to manage and establish cooperative ways of interacting. In the past, during many protests the police had used violent force to end the protest taking place. He knew if they were violent in their protesting, that would only lead to mass assaults and murders on his fellow protesters. King also thought by doing things the peaceful way, they would have no choice but follow suit. King says, “The purpose of our direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door of negotiation. (p 803)” By using non-violence, it put his followers on the moral high ground, and also showing the brutality and cruelty of racists.
King talks about why he feels he can break some laws, and not others. He says some laws are just, and some un-just. King states that, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. (p 804)” This means that the laws were meant to enforce hate. These laws may have been law, but King had a higher law to uphold. He states that people who breaks a law they thought to be unjust, then accepts the penalty, “…is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. (p 805)”
He also reminds the people that just because something is legal, that does not make it right. King says, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’, and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’(p 805)” He compared the Jews struggles in the beginning with Hitler to the situation the African Americans were facing in the south at the time. King also asks if Americans had their religious rights taken, would they not fight for them? (p 805)
King says, “Oppressed People cannot be oppressed forever. (p 807)” “The yearning for freedom always manifests itself, and that is what happened to the American Negro, (p 807)” says King. What he means is, a group of people can continually be repressed, put down, and discriminated against. In the end though, when they a chance to finally get their freedom, they will fight hard for it. Once again, he brings up using nonviolent actions to control these people. He says to let them make their pilgrimages, and do their marches, because if they do not allow them to express themselves nonviolently, they will become violent. (p 807) Many of his detractors called him an extremist. At first he fought that label. Then he began to accept it. He says, “Was Jesus not an extremist for love? (p 807)” King then lists a couple of religious figures as being “extremists.” These were great people such as Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul. King also listed historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, citing them as extremists for freedom. (p 808) At that time, an extremist was needed. An extremist was needed that was extreme in things such as optimism and love. That was the type of extremist King was.
Martin Luther King Jr. arrest in Birmingham turned out to be a blessing in disguise. During his time in that jail, he wrote one of the most influential pieces of work in history. It turned the tide on the Civil Rights Movement. He addressed all the issues of the time, such as his nonviolent protests, why he broke laws, and his “extremism.” Though it was not though at the time, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” turned out to a large reason for the Civil Rights Movement being a success.

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