Today’s relevance of a ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ The letter that Martin Luther King wrote to eight ministers in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was in response to their published appeal to their congregations to stop demonstrating against the unjust segregation laws that had been oppressing the black population in the South since the end of the Civil War. As King was the leader of these demonstrations, he was one of the 53 individuals who were arrested that Good Friday. His letter attempts to justify his actions and highlight the need for nonviolent demonstrations such as the one he’d just led. It was only through this sort of action that the white population could be forced to negotiate better terms for the black man. In addition, he argues that it is not immoral to refuse to obey unjust laws. He also indicates that the levels of frustration among the black community are reaching such proportions that something must be done now, while peaceful means are still possible, before this frustration reaches its boiling point and explodes into violence before he criticizes the church leaders for failing to recognize this and helping him to channel this energy more positively. He makes these points by arguing for morality and appealing to human ‘goodness’.
Answering the contention by the other ministers that it was morally wrong to break the law whether it was through peaceful or violent means, King again begged to differ by calling on the codes of morality: “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, an unjust law is no law at all.” A contemporary example of an unjust law that should be broken is America’s war against recreational drugs. Over half of the prisoners in jail are there for drug ‘crimes.’ This causes overcrowding which results in the early release of dangerous, violent criminals. It is illogical from a societal view and inhumane to individuals who are marked as a criminal for life for activity that causes no harm to others. The question many ask is; what crime is it to smoke a little pot? Who does it hurt? Smoking marijuana affects no one else nor infringes upon other’s rights. Still, if caught by the morality Gestapo, these people will forever be categorized amongst the murderers and rapists of society. While those that harm others certainly deserve the label ‘ex-convict,’ a student who shares a joint with their roommate in the privacy of the dorm room certainly does not. Our code of law is founded upon a principle of presumptive rationality. Rational adults should be allowed to make personal choices as long as those actions cause no harm to others. The U.S. government is unequivocally unjustified in choosing this particular personal freedom to ignore at such colossal cost to society (Fu, 2006).
King concludes his letter by expressing his disappointment with the church leaders who have failed to recognize not only the injustice being suffered by their people. Through these arguments, he is able to shame the church leaders for their lack of understanding their responsibility to bring attention to such immoral actions as segregation laws and to help find solutions that will allow their congregations to live truly equal lives with equal opportunity for the future. Today, blacks do not enjoy true equality as evidenced by the continued use of racial profiling. Racial profiling is, by anyone’s definition, a rational method of discrimination. The profiling of black citizens in the name of ‘getting tough on crime’ is not effective as well and causes more harm, ultimately, than whatever good may come of it. “Racial profiling in any manifestation is a flawed law enforcement tactic that is in direct conflict with constitutional values” (McDonald, 2001). Racial profiling of blacks causes a higher incarceration rate and is patently unfair and un-American. Today’s church leaders have been mostly silent on this and other ethnic imbalance issues.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” University Of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center (April 16, 1963). December 12, 2007
Fu, Edward. “Should Drugs be Legalized?” Drug Policy News. Drug Policy Alliance. (March 8, 2006). December 12, 2007
MacDonald, Heather. “The War on the Police and How it Harms the War on Terrorism.” Supra. Vol. 7, I. 16. (December 31, 2001). Accessed December 12, 2007 from