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Critical Analysis: A Letter from Birmingham Jail

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In 1963 America was in pursuit to end racial segregation and discrimination, formulating the thought of equality for all. The Civil Rights Movement was approaching its crest attributable to the efforts of distinct racial activists; such as, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., however, in some parts of America; including Birmingham, Alabama, violence against blacks was still heightening owing to a country divided by those fighting for segregation and those against it. The increased hostility towards blacks in Birmingham was brought to King’s awareness; in response he began to assemble volunteers in Birmingham to learn methods of nonviolent protest. On April 12, King guided a march through Birmingham, in which all protesters were swiftly detained and placed in Birmingham Jail. While restrained in Birmingham, King began to compose “A Letter from Birmingham Jail," in response to an earlier letter run in the local newspaper by his fellow clergymen describing his actions in Birmingham “unwise and untimely." In his letter King refutes criticisms and exemplifies his reasoning for his actions in Birmingham all while arguing the universal question of what is right from wrong; not only in response to his fellow clergymen, but with the consideration of a national audience as well.

King opens his letter rebutting the prospect that he was not welcome in Birmingham by clarifying that not only did he have the privilege to create attention to any concern within the United States; by reason of being an American citizen, but that he also had organizational relations with and was invited by the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). The SCLC asked for King’s support in addressing the increased hostility and cruelty toward blacks that was being perpetuated all the more so by government officials and law enforcement. Birmingham grew into one of the utmost segregated cities in America that experienced immense discrimination and violence towards blacks; including, police brutality, injustice in the courts, and bombings to homes and churches. After failed attempts to have white business owners remove the racial store front signs that King deemed as “humiliating”; King felt there were no alternatives other than to organize a direct action campaign regardless of the difficulties they faced. Refuting his actions as being “unwise” King states that direct action was the only choice; negotiations had been unsuccessful and ignored time after time. Direct action was the only way to coerce others to meet the issues at hand. “Freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” King counters, and the time to take action is never well timed for those doing the oppressing. King refutes his action as “untimely” by explaining the black community had waited over 340 years to experience equal rights in America. King pronounced that it is an easy issue to put aside for those who are not directly affected by the pain of segregation. King uses pathos to trigger the reader’s emotions with illustrations of repression blacks experienced within their communities to create understanding to the impatience they may have felt.

A mere six days before the march that ultimately led to King’s apprehension; protesters had marched to City Hall which led to their arrest and an injunction being passed on April 10 in the state courts prohibiting demonstrations. King felt contented violating a ruling that was conceded in only the state courts instead of the federal courts and devoted the next two days swaying other leaders of the campaign not merely to violate the law, but consider the possibility of spending Easter Sunday in confinement. King’s fellow clergy men expressed alarm of his disobedience towards the ruling, accusing him of obeying some laws while choosing to defy others. King contradicts this by explaining that laws can either be just or unjust, he justifies his breaking the law by asserting he has a moral responsibility to disregard an unjust law for, in the words of St. Augustine “an unjust law is no law at all.” Thereafter in his letter, King intricately provides reasons to substantiate why segregation is morally wrong; establishing a valid argument of how to decipher morality. Scholars have long asked how we tell what is right from wrong; King provides concrete reasoning to how we can note segregation as immoral.

King shapes the most important case of the letter while endeavoring to untangle right from wrong; articulating words that would soon transform the face of America. King begins to clarify just from unjust by using the words of prior scholars before him; such as, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich, to illustrate that an unjust law will destroy a person’s character, form separation, and demote a person to a status. He enlightens that a just law is placed on a minority wherever the majority and the minority are mutually willing to follow the law; whereas, an unjust law will be imposed upon the minority however the majority will not require adhering to the law themselves. In other words, when a majority creates regulations but would not want the same hardships and treatment that comes from that regulation inflicted upon them; it is unjust. Although that is not the only factor that would create unjustness in law, what about when that minority has no voice in the approving of these regulations? King points out that despite the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1896 where blacks gained the right to vote; Jim Crow laws



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