Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary
This guide is based upon the modified version of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” released as the fifth essay inWhy We Can’t Wait (1964 ). King’s letter is an action to another open letter, “A Call for Unity,” released in The Birmingham News and jointly authored by eight Alabama clergymen who argued that the demonstrations were not a suitable reaction to conditions in Birmingham. King opens the letter by discussing that he is responding to their criticism that the demonstrations are”‘unwise and unfortunate'” (85) due to the fact that he believes the clergymen to be sincere individuals of “authentic goodwill” (85 ).
King first reacts to the clergymen’s criticism that King is an outsider. According to King, he remains in Birmingham since the Alabama Christian Movement for Person Rights (ACMHR), the local of affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Management Conference (SCLSC), invited him. King then highlights the example of early Christians like the Apostle Paul, who preached far from home, to make the point that King’s Christian duty needs him to come to Birmingham because of the presence of oppression.
Ultimately,” [i] njustice anywhere is a hazard to justice all over,” according to King, so when it concerns combating injustice, there is no such thing as an outsider in the U. S. (87 ). The clergymen’s objection to the protests is unfortunate since it stops working to represent what led to the protests in the first place. The choice to protest in Birmingham is the outcome of a four-stage process King and his peers followed: gathering facts, working out, self-purifying, and engaging in direct action. King provides proof to reveal that they finished each step prior to continuing to the next.
Due to the fact that they followed this process, the leaders of the demonstrations understood their timing was right. King next responds to the concern of whether direct action is preferable to negotiation by mentioning that” [n] onviolent direct action seeks to develop such a crisis and foster such a stress that a community which has continuously refused to negotiate is required to challenge the issue” (89 ). Far from being devastating, such tension is “positive, nonviolent tension that is required for development” (90 ). The choice of direct action was clearly used to require the hands of those in power in Birmingham.
King also responds to the allegation that demonstrations were “unforeseen” (90) due to the fact that they did not give Mayor Albert Boutwell, the moderate segregationist who beat severe segregationist Bull Connor in the mayor’s election, a chance to show that he was prepared to loosen the segregationist program in Birmingham. King counters this position by stating that regardless of his gentleness, Boutwell is still a segregationist who requires to be forced to alter: “liberty is never ever voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (90 ).
King gives various examples of the personal and political wrongs that have occurred while African-Americans waited for racial equality. Under the burden of such injustice, impatienceis understandable. King next reacts to the clergymen’s issues about the protestors’ violation of laws by comparing simply and unjust laws. Just laws accord with moral law and should be obeyed. Unjust laws break God’s law and should not be complied with.
Segregationist laws are unfair laws that transform the relationship between the oppressor and oppressedintoan “‘I-it” relationship that produces separation in between people and changes African-Americans into things. Laws can likewise be unfair in their application. King provides the example of the law versus parading as one that is unfair in application because it is explicitly applied to avoid the exercise of complimentary speech. King then utilizes the resistance of early Christians and the Boston Tea Party as examples to establish that civil disobedience is an old and reputable action to unjustified laws.
Declining to comply with Hitler’s laws prohibiting aid to Jews or Communist laws that forbid religious freedom are two contemporary examples of such disobedience. Kingexpresses his dissatisfaction in the inactiveness of white moderates, who fear disorder more than injustice and who think they can inform African-Americans to wait on their liberty. King compares partition to a boil that can’t be treated “as long as it is concealed” but that can be cured if it is “opened with all its ugliness to the alternative medicines of air and light” (98 ).
The clergymen’s accusation that even serene demonstrations are incorrect due to the fact that they “precipitate violence” (98) is illogical and unethical, the equivalent of blaming Socrates or Jesus for the authorities’ function in their deaths. King follows these examples with a conversation of white moderates’ “awful misconception of time” (99 ), which enables them to believe that equality will ultimately come as a matter of course.
King counters this argument by mentioning that “time itself is neutral” and that” [h] uman development […] comes through the steadfast efforts of men happy to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of social stagnation” (99 ). King believes that this moment is for that reason the right time to act. King also responds to the clergymen’s allegation that his actions are “‘extreme'” (99 ). According to King, the African-American neighborhood includes “a force of complacency [complete satisfaction or indifference] and another of “bitterness and hatred,” like the Country of Islam (100 ). King’s objective is to moderate these two extremes through nonviolence.
Without this method, King believes “the streets of the South would […] be streaming with blood […] [and] a racial nightmare” (101 ). On further reflection, King shifts to the position that he is pleased to be labeled an extremist. Jesus, the Old Testament Prophets, the Apostle Paul, and Abraham Lincoln were all extremists for just causes. Jesus was “an extremist for love, truth and goodness,” and could perhaps work as an example of simply the kind of “creative extremist” the South and the U. S. need to overcome their oppression (103 ). The few white moderates who have acted by opposing are also such extremists and deserve appreciation.
King reveals keen frustration over the inactiveness of the white church on the concern of civil liberties. King applauds 2 of the ministers who made up the letter for their concrete actions toward equality in their churches but notes that during the Montgomery, Alabama, demonstrations, the white church management was controlled by “outright challengers” or those who “stayed silent” (104 ). The clergy in Birmingham have actually been equally frustrating, with some recommending compliance with segregation from the pulpit, focusing on insignificant details instead of the central concern of injustice, or elevating “otherworldly religion” over social issues (105 ).
In looking over the churches of the South, King finds himself wondering why they have actually been missing in action when federal government authorities supported partition and African-Americans rose up to demonstration. The modern-day church is “blemished and scarred […] through social neglect and through worry of being nonconformists” (106 ). In early history, Christians “rejoiced at being considered worthwhile to suffer for what they believed,” and worried towns identified them “‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outdoors agitators'” (107 ). Their willingness to live out their morals “brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests” (107 ).
Modern Christians are “rchdefenders of the status quo” and supply cover for the class structure in lots of neighborhoods by waiting or opposing advocacy (107 ). The churches’ complicity threatens to their survival, competes King. They have currently become progressively irrelevant for youths. King muses that possibly his optimism in the power of churches to take part in change has actually been lost. Perhaps arranged faith is just efficient in supporting the status quo and change can just originate from “the inner spiritual church” (107 ). King notes that some of his travel companions in the liberty marches are people from arranged religious beliefs.
King’s hope is that all arranged religions will follow their example. Even if the churches fail in this ethical responsibility, King is confident that the struggle for flexibility will be won “due to the fact that the goal of America is flexibility,” in spite of the longstanding oppression of African-Americans (108 ). African-Americans’ resilience and determination in believing in freedom regardless of “the inexpressible ruthlessness of slavery” implies that the present opposition will not win, either (108 ). The flexibility struggle aligns with Christian morality and national values, King argues.
King’s final reaction is criticism of the clergymen’s appreciation of Birmingham police’s maintenance of order throughout the demonstrations. King states he questions they would applaud police if they had seen the violence against protestors in the streets and jails. King admits that law enforcement has been more disciplined this time but notes that they are still taking part in actions that support immorality in the form of segregation. Instead, the clergymen should have praised the actions of the protestors, who showed great nerve and discipline by not striking back when attacked.
These protestors, argues King, will one day be acknowledged as “standing up for what is finest in the American dream and for the most spiritual values in our Judaeo-Christian [sic] heritage” (111 ). King excuses the long length of the letter. It was all he might carry out in a jail cell, he admits. He likewise begs forgiveness for any flaws in the letter, or the letter’s arguments, and reveals a desire that one day he will be able to fulfill the clergymen “not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, however as a fellow clergyman and Christian sibling” (112 ). His last thought is a vision of a country joined in brotherhood, one free from prejudice” (112 ).