Using specific and substantial evidence quoted from Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," explain why Direct Action was critical to non violence. I need to make an argument that of...

Using specific and substantial evidence quoted from Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," explain why Direct Action was critical to non violence.

I need to make an argument that of King's four methods for non-violent action; collection of facts to determine if injustice has occurred, self-purification, negotiation and direct action, that direct action was the most critical to non violence.

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gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Direct action is so critical to the non-violent movement because it is the one thing above all that helps to effect change. King argues this point strenuously throughout this letter. The other steps that he says that are part of the movement all really culminate in direct action. The first step that he mentions, is essentially one of fact-finding, and establishing whether injustice has taken place. This is followed by ‘self-purification’ – preparing oneself bodily and mentally for action. There is also negotiation, the step of actually engaging (or trying to engage) with the opposition.

To highlight the importance of direct action, King recalls a specific instance in Birmingham where civic leaders agreed verbally to take down racial signs but never actually did. So that, according to King: ‘we had no alternative except to prepare for direct action’. Direct action is presented here as a last resort, but a most important one. Negotiation is shown here to be almost wholly ineffective without direct action. In fact King goes on to claim that actually it is direct action that forces genuine negotiation, which can produce an actual result:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

This is the crux of the philosophy of  non-violent direct action: that it brings issues out in the open, making them visible, pushing them to the point where they ‘can no longer be ignored’. In this way it provokes confrontation but without violence. The idea of direct action forcing tension may sound ‘shocking’ for a nonviolent movement, King concedes, but he makes the significant distinction between ‘violent tension' and 'constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth’. In fact, later in the letter he remarks that

Actually, we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

In other words, direct action does not create problems, but simply raises awareness of the problems that already exist. It performs an indispensable service in highlighting society’s ills. Non-violent direct action is not aggressive, but it is assertive.

The critical importance of direct action to non-violent protest has important historical precedents, as King points out. At the time it may appear that its adherents are wilfully breaking laws, but King observes that it’s no bad thing, in fact it is necessary to defy unjust social laws in favour of higher moral and spiritual truth, as the early Christians did, or Socrates.

The importance of direct action is further underlined by King as he soberly recounts the extent of the oppression inflicted on his people: beatings, imprisonment and lynchings, and so on. The need for direct action is all the more pressing as there are too many people content to sit around doing nothing: the moderate whites whom King attacks with thinly-veiled scorn, those who pin their faith in the idea that somehow things will get better with time. King deems this a ‘strangely irrational notion’. Action is required; people can’t just sit around waiting for things to change of their own accord. Without direct action, social change really cannot take place.

As King remarks, the philosophy of non-violent direct action rejects both the ‘do-nothingness’ of moderates and also repudiates those black nationalists who preach hatred and violence towards whites. Peaceful direct action, as King says, aims between the two; peaceful yet energetic, it forms a ‘creative outlet’ for the ‘repressed emotions’ of the oppressed while forcing the oppressors to sit up and take notice. It is a course that is more proactive than the ineffectual ways of moderates and more positive and healthy than the preachers of hatred and discord who merely fuel antagonism. Peaceful direct action fulfills the need of the oppressed to do something to change society, but in a manner that is injurious neither to themselves nor to others.

Therefore, it can be persuasively argued that direct action is the single most effective tool for the movement of non-violent protest. Without it, all other tenets of the movement ultimately cannot achieve anything in practical terms.

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Self-purification is the process of preparing for nonviolent direct action through introspection, practice, experiential learning, community building, and commitment.

Self-purification is perhaps the critical lynchpin of the entire process of nonviolent direct action. It establishes the mental emotional and spiritual grounding activists lean into when doing their work. In a very real sense, self-purification is what enables nonviolent activists to do meaningful and effective work.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses some of the components of self-purification that activists in Birmingham went through prior to beginning mass demonstration in the city: "[W]e 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?'"

Working through these questions in a dedicated community setting makes it easier for activists to maintain a stance of compassionate nonviolence in the heat of the moment, because they've taken the time to figure out why such a stance is worth committing to.

King understood the radical nature of what nonviolence called for. In response to critiques of extremism, he noted the deep tradition of so-called extremism in the fight for justice. King situated the work in Birmingham within the context of both early Christian and early American social justice movements: "Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"

Thus, For King: "the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?" This is the very question nonviolent protesters ask themselves and each other in the process of self-purification.

Self-purification is more than introspection and dialogue. It's also learning, practicing, and developing skill nonviolent direct action requires a person to essentially override their survival instinct; to remain nonviolent, vulnerable, and open to attack in situations that may be life-threatening. Self-purification involves learning practices such as role-play, so that activists' nonviolent responses become automated. When a person violently attack you, a natural response would be to retaliate with force. Nonviolent direct action requires re-training that instinct so that you respond differently. Through drills, community role-play, and other exercises, nonviolent activists learned a new response to violence. Without such prolonged intentional practice, nonviolent activists could not have done thier work to any degree of effectiveness. 

rachellopez | Student

Self-purification is a necessary step for non violent campaigns because "personal sacrifices are needed for the sake of progress".

When one self-purifies they will mentally and physically prepare themselves to get through any difficult task. When African Americans protested with non violence they often did sit-ins where they sat in a place for only whites and stayed until someone served them. People reacted with violent acts by throwing things at them and spitting on them, but those who sat had to be willing to do nothing about it.     

King said to the clergymen, in which he was responding to, that "while admiring the restraint shown by the police, [he] failed to notice the even greater restraint of the demonstrators."

Showing restraint and being willing to fight without "fighting" is probably the most important thing in any protest. You will stand out and be noticed for handling things in a calm, professional way and not blamed for starting issues.

Read the study guide:
Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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