Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham” Jail is one of the most prominent arguments written in the 20th century. Dr. King’s letter is a response to an open letter the clergymen had written, criticizing the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. King himself during the Birmingham protests (Joy 249). Dr. King basically writes the letter to expresses his anger and disappointment about criticisms of the clergymen. In addition, King uses the letter to state his aspiration and desire to address the various concerns presented by the clergymen. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has effectively addressed key arguments such as race, justice/injustice, extremism/moderation, civil disobedience, universal humanity, and individual action (Joy 249). His arguments fit the qualities Ramage, Bean, and Johnson discuss in the chapters on argument.
Dr. King dispels the clergy’s notion that he is an “outsider” who merely came to Birmingham to destabilize the place and cause trouble (170). In a rather unemotional, straightforward tone, King defends his right to be in Birmingham by stating that even SCLS operates throughout the South despite being based in Atlanta. Incidentally, the Christian organization had come to Birmingham following an invitation by one of its affiliates. He also asserts that his moral reason for coming to Birmingham is to battle “injustice”. According to King, it is imperative to work for justice wherever injustice prevails or is being practiced because all states, as well as communities, are interrelated. Furthermore, he states that the clergymen got it wrong when they criticized the protestors in Birmingham without exploring the fundamental causes of the inherent injustices. Dr. King believes that racism and other forms of discrimination are the actual injustices that prompted the protests (170-171).
Meanwhile, Dr. King provides a comprehensive explanation of the entire process of organizing nonviolent/peaceful action. The SCLC established that Birmingham engaged in the practice of institutionalized racism, and even attempted to enter into certain agreements with several white business leaders operating in the area. The SCLC planned a protest through “direct action” after the negotiations broke down. Apparently, the white men did not honor the agreement and their promise. The protesters went through a period of “self-purification” before commencing their protests. “Self-purification” was essential since it helped determine if prospective protesters were fully prepared to work nonviolently, as well as suffer arrest and indignity (171).
Dr. King presents a compelling argument about the protesters commitment to observe as well as maintain law and order. Protesters were cautious not to disrupt the impending mayoral elections in Birmingham. Accordingly, they put protests on hold until the election exercise was completed. Eugene “Bull” Connor, a notorious racist, lost to Albert Boutwell in the election. Nevertheless, the protests had to commence soon after the elections because Albert was also equally a prominent segregationist (Joy 249). Furthermore, King explained why he preferred protest to negotiation although he knew the clergymen put so much value in negotiation. He asserts that negotiations could not take place after all if people do not protest.
King believes that a protest sparks “tension” and a “crisis” that compels unwilling parties to enter into negotiations in good faith. For instance, the white moderates readily embraced concepts such as “nonviolent and constructive” protests. On the other hand, words like a “crisis and tension” were rather alarming and frightening. Hence, King argued that tension and protests are necessary if human were to achieve tangible growth. In the same way, direct action would also create considerable tension thereby helping to end segregation (171-172).
Meanwhile, Dr. King acknowledges the existence of “just and unjust laws”. He believes that every individual has the right and responsibility to uphold just laws, while, on the other hand, break unjust laws. Just laws, King asserts, are laws/legislations that uphold and promote human dignity (Joy 249). On the contrary, unjust laws are laws or legislations that “degrade human personality”. For instance, he expects white business owners in Birmingham to uphold laws that protect equality. He also argues that unjust laws hurt not only the oppressed but also the oppressors. Apparently, unjust laws give the oppressors a false sense of superiority (175). Dr. King specifically addresses the issue of segregation, which he believes is totally unjust. Segregation, according to him, is a law worth breaking because a majority compels a minority to follow such law yet exempting itself from it. He also urges the people break the Alabama’s laws since they arguably work to prohibit or exclude black citizens from fully participating in matters of democracy. The Alabama’s laws are not only unjust but also undemocratic.
Lastly, Dr. King presents a logical argument about the possibility of individuals as well as authorities misusing just laws so that they eventually become unjust. A typical case in point is the law that prohibits “parading without a permit”. Although the law on parading is fairly just, it was misused in the above case utterly to support the dominant injustice of segregation (Joy 249). Incidentally, Dr. King argues that he was primarily arrested for breaking the alleged law by parading unlawfully yet he had all the reasons to express his anger and disappointment at the authorities in Birmingham as well as the clergy. King goes further to provide a couple of allusions that support his claim. For instance, he states that even the Nazi Germany’s laws allowed persecution of the Jewish. Accordingly, his civil disobedience and alleged breaking of the unjust law would have been reasonable because his primary intention would have been to defend the oppressed class. In summary, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has effectively addressed key arguments such as race, justice/injustice, extremism/moderation, civil disobedience, universal humanity, and individual action.
Joy, Anna. We Are America: A Thematic Reader and Guide to Writing. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.
King, Martin, L. Letter from Birmingham Jail