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As Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in August 1963, he set about to address the protestations directed against him and others who descended upon that notoriously racist city. These protestations were presented by local white clergy who resented his presence, even though some may have sympathized with his cause. As was, and remains, often the case, citizens of a particular city, town, country, etc., tend to 'circle the wagons' when confronted with criticism from outside their borders. They will often put aside their differences in the face of that common threat from outside. This is what some of those white local clergy were doing when they objected to the arrival of King and other civil rights leaders from other locales (others among the white clergy endorsed the segregationist policies of their non-clergy parishioners). King's letter was a direct response to those objections, and was eloquent in explaining both his reason for being in Birmingham and the nonviolent tactics he endorsed.
King's endorsement of civil disobedience and his rejection of violence were grounded both in his theological inclinations towards 'turning the other cheek' and his recognition of the blood that would inevitably be spilled among his followers in the face of white majority attackers possessed of considerable firepower. Nonviolence, he believed, was the optimal and most morally defensible option for confronting the institutionalized racism that had drawn him to Alabama. In his August 1963 letter, he articulated the process that had brought these protesters to this place and time:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. . . Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.
And, so, the leaders of the civil rights movement adopted their strategy of civil disobedience. Adopting such a strategy, however, requires a form of commitment that is inherently difficult for many to follow, especially those less well-versed in the Biblical scriptures that influenced King. As he wrote in his letter:
We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" and "Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?" We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.
Then, in perhaps the most important passage of the letter with respect to the student's question, King answered his own rhetorical question as to why his, or any movement, should adopt such a strategy of "sit-ins, marches, and so forth." Those aforementioned white clergy had asked that, rather than civil disobedience, King and his followers simply appeal to the white supremacist structure to negotiate a resolution of this situation, prompting the following reply:
You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
In short, King defended his use of nonviolent, civil disobedience as the only recourse to the obstacles he and others faced in attempting to end the systemic racism that had resulted in his arrival in Alabama. Merely appealing to Alabama's white majority power structure for an end to segregation and racially-motivated violence accomplished nothing. The civil rights movement, especially in 1963, remained weak compared to the forces that sustained the status quo. Violent resistance in the American South could end up hurting the very African American communities the movement most wanted to help, as it would give the Ku Klux Klan and other militant racist organizations further pretext to continue their lynchings, church bombings and other acts of terrorism directed against blacks. With power tilted so heavily in favor of the pro-segregationist side of the equation, nonviolent civil disobedience offered the civil rights movement its greatest chances of accomplishing its goals. The whites simply had no incentive at that time to negotiate in good faith; obstructionist but nonviolent "direct action," King argued, were both justified by the circumstances and represented the path most likely to lead to success in compelling meaningful negotiation, or even capitulation. King's views on civil disobedience, then, can best be summarized by reference to the weaknesses of alternative strategies, like violence and negotiation.
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