Dec 13, 2017 in Politics

A Response to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

It is crucial to first understand the history of why Dr. Martin Luther King was imprisoned. Fred Shuttlesworth a member of SCLC and a Birmingham minister, called on King to merge his organization SCLC, with Fred’s group the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to protest about the conditions in the state of Birmingham. It was abundantly evident in the city that the treatment of blacks was harsh and at times extremely aggressive. King finally adopted the proposal in the year 1963, but he treated it as a campaign. It was during the Sunday (Easter) protests that Martin got arrested together with all the protestors. He was placed in solitary confinement and denied his phone-call to any person. He spent eight days in confinement, and it was then that he wrote this letter to respond to a letter which had run in a newspaper claiming the protests were “misguided and untimely”.

In the Letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, looks poignantly into the reality of discrimination and racial prejudice, in America in the 1960’s. The letter written is addressed to his fellow clergy men, and it addresses their concerns about Birmingham. They pointed out their concerns regarding the sense of having non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham which, King and other followers, as well as community leaders, carried out and orchestrated in 1963. In his response, Martin Luther King defends his followers’ decision to act at the moment rather than wait for the civil rights movement which was then, underway (par 31).  In the letter, Martin’s skill as a rhetorician is revealed and also to some extent his educational level is shown. He engrosses both the worldly people as well as bible readers in his letter. Though passionate, he is controlled in his words giving it a powerful voice to the movement. There are some responses that the letter received as described below:  

Once read, it is somewhat embarrassing to read the letters from the white clergy men. The men are willing to criticize people who work under pressures which, they, had no experience in. This is a common practice of the elite as they think they have the right to do so. It is because of this that they show their level of ignorance to the shocking situation on the ground. They additionally lacked compassion to the situation which was unfortunate. They even viewed their letter as a form of evolution in relation to the ‘Negro’ which only deepens the state of the problem. Trusting the law makers and the law itself to solve their problems was found to be difficult as the same authorities continually repeat the cycle. It is obvious that different rules apply to different individuals in the community which varies depending on a person’s status and location. On the other hand, the clergy men requested for calm and trust ignoring the past. For example, they ignored the commendation for law enforcement officials; this demonstrated a lack of understanding and knowledge in the difficulty, complexity and uncertainty brought by the issues at hand.  

King used his book, Hidden Transcript to verify the fails and holes in the responses by the white clergy men. He published this book to analyze the situation of the African- American before and after the civil rights era. The clergies’ letter challenged King to use proper channels in the pursuit of a realistic and practical approach to the said racial problems through the courts. Martin then points out that the main problem is with the courts which supported the violence, execution and denial of civic rights of the blacks. He also pointed out that those who worked in the ‘proper channels’ supported the courts and therefore; he believed that other strategies would have to come into play. His letter is a change, and it may have been evident for those oppressed but would have been perplexing to those who were then considered authoritative without his help.

In his letter, Dr. King involves his readers in his thought process and places them in his role like in the following passage: “…you suddenly find your tongue twisted, and your speech stammering as you seek to explain….” (Par 14). “I suppose grief flooding my heart as sadness leaves wet streaks on his chubby little cheeks and an ache in my chest so intent that I am left physically incapable of speaking” (par 14). In reading this, anger is evoked in the heart of the reader as he places himself in Dr. King’s shoes. When questioned why he was breaking the law, Martin responded with “There are just and unjust laws; ones which should be followed in order to be a decent person, and laws in which you must disregard for conscious sake in order to be a moral person (par 180). He explains why he finds the laws unjust as well as just, humanizing and dehumanizing, fair and unfair.

Conclusion

The letter from Birmingham Jail is a political theological study which challenges those who practice injustices in the society. Years after his death, King’s words still work for the 21st century where the social wilderness is greater than it was even before. It proves that people will find ways to adapt the social injustices to others. This letter should be propelled forward and no longer be hidden but rather should be an artifact and should make its rightful place in the books of American History. 

Related essays