What are the claims Martin Luther King makes in his "Letter From Birmingham City Jail"?

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned this letter in response to criticism he received from eight white clergymen for his peaceful protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He makes many claims in the lengthy letter, some of which are described below.

Right from the beginning of the letter, King asserts that he...

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned this letter in response to criticism he received from eight white clergymen for his peaceful protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He makes many claims in the lengthy letter, some of which are described below.

Right from the beginning of the letter, King asserts that he receives much criticism and doesn't have the time to respond to most of it; otherwise, he would do little work besides responding to his critics. Yet the claims made by these eight white clergymen are worth taking the time to compose a response, particularly the labels they have attributed to Dr. King's work as "unwise and untimely."

King claims that he has to be in Birmingham because injustice is in Birmingham. Since he deeply believes in the interconnectedness of all people, he says that he cannot simply sit in Atlanta knowing of the injustices in Birmingham and take no action. After all, he notes, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

King also claims that sometimes tension is needed to bring about social change, and he isn't afraid of situations that stimulate healthy tension. King hopes that this type of tension can lead to negotiations that foster brotherhood.

King also makes the claim that the oppressed must demand freedom from their oppressors as those with power never volunteer to relinquish it. He goes on to say that African Americans have waited for three hundred and forty years for their Constitutional and God-given rights to be fully recognized. He says that they cannot stand to wait any longer because they are always fighting a sense of "nobodyness" and are tired of being ignored, treated without respect, and facing violence.

A further claim King makes in response to those who ask why he wants to obey some laws (such as desegregating schools) and ignore others (laws that enforce segregation in some areas) is that there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. He sides with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

King also says that white moderates impede a path to social justice through their focus on order over justice and who feel that they can set a timetable for another man's freedom. He also makes this claim in response to white moderates who tell King and his supporters that their rights will come in "time" and they shouldn't rush so quickly:

It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

King's letter is an assertion that the oppressed cannot remain oppressed forever, and that eventually freedom will demand to be acknowledged. This letter makes various claims that demand that whites acknowledge both the timeliness and inherent justice in King's work.

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The letter, written on April 16, 1963, is addressed to Martin Luther King’s fellow clergymen and tries to explain his presence in Birmingham while also addressing various criticisms made by these people towards him. He claims that there are racial injustices in Birmingham in the form of brutality, segregation, unfair treatment of African Americans within the judicial system, unsolved bombings of black homes and churches, and so on. He states that his presence in Birmingham is based on an invitation by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to be available to engage in a nonviolent call for action against the appalling racial conditions in the city.

He claims that nonviolent direct action is important as it creates the tension necessary to force a society that has repeatedly refused to negotiate deal with underlying difficult issues. He states that historically, privileged groups rarely give up their privileges easily, unless when pushed into action.

He states that they aim to disregard all laws that are unjust, such as the segregation statutes that “give the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” This is in response to criticism leveled towards his group and its willingness to “break laws.” He states that his group’s actions are meant to bring to the surface the underlying societal problems—to expose existing injustices.

In response to calls for patience in agitation for justice, he states that “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” He denies claims that his and his group’s actions are extreme, stating that theirs is a point between two existing stances: one agitating for inaction, the other standing for hatred and despair.

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