Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Summarise the theory of nonviolent resistence that king presents in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" essay.

In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. asserts that the theory of nonviolent resistance is a crucial element of a campaign to bring about social change. He presents fact collection, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action as four key elements of a nonviolent campaign. Each person involved should first learn the relevant facts, negotiate with the parties concerned, and prepare themselves to act and accept the consequences. After doing these things, one may engage in direct action.

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After he was arrested and jailed for participating in a 1963 demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter responding to complaints made towards him and the civil rights movement in a published letter by eight clergymen. The letter includes his responses to some of their explicit criticisms of this particular demonstration, although they did not mention his name specifically.

More generally, Dr. King took the opportunity to explain what constitutes nonviolent resistance as means to change social problems, including unjust laws. King tells his readers that nonviolence is not simply the rejection of violence during a demonstration. He explains how nonviolence works as an intrinsic element of a concerted campaign, and shows how that campaign was carried out in Birmingham.

There are four steps within such a campaign. The first is collection of the facts. The relevant facts in Birmingham had been ascertained over time; these included the continued segregation of public spaces.

The second step is negotiation. King showed that he, Rev. Shuttleworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and other civil rights organization leaders had held meetings with city officials; however, no change had resulted from the meetings.

The third step is self-purification. Each person who considers participating in a public action must first prepare by asking themselves if they are ready. In the preparatory workshops, the potential participants were asked to verify that they could accept blows without retaliating and endure the ordeals of jail.

In the last step, direct action, protestors would “present… [their] very bodies” to lay their case before the community’s conscience. This action was postponed until after an election for sheriff. The direct action generates “creative tension” that forces a community into negotiation.

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