Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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In "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," what does King find illogical about the claim that the actions of his followers precipitate violence?

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King writes that his critics, composed primarily of moderate ministers, "assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence." He asks, rhetorically, whether this is logical and just and compares the logic of this line of thinking to blaming Christ for his crucifixion, Socrates for being condemned, or a victim of a robbery for possessing money in the first place. In short, King argues that the "white moderate" has blamed the victims of violence for inciting the violence themselves. He says that "society must protect the robbed and punish the robber," and in Birmingham, the exact opposite was happening. People who engaged in nonviolent protest were being beaten in the streets of Birmingham, and this was the fault of city officials like Bull Connor, not the protestors themselves. With this line of thinking, King is challenging a moderate view that prioritized maintaining order at all costs. But he is also inviting his fellow religious leaders to see the civil rights struggle for what it is. He chastises them for their sophistry in blaming the civil rights protestors for the violence that white supremacists used to prop up the Jim Crow system. But he also illustrates that the original crime of segregation is a moral one, and one that was always propped up by violence. Violence is not a consequence of the protests, it is a feature of the system of racial oppression that prevailed in Birmingham.

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King calls out those who would condemn protests because they "precipitate violence." King rejects this criticism, in effect calling it a form of victim-blaming. He uses three analogies to prove his point: he suggests that blaming the protesters for provoking violence is like saying a man with money provoked a criminal to rob him; or it is as if Socrates' devotion to philosophical truth caused his poisoning; or, finally, as if Jesus's connection to God provoked his crucifixion. He concludes by citing how courts have ruled over and over that protesting to gain basic rights is legal, and that society must "protect the robbed and punish the robber."

King's use of analogical argument is effective in two ways. First, it compares the protesters to situations and figures well-known to his audience of clergymen (King wrote his letter in answer to a letter jointly written by white clergy condemning the Birmingham protests). In this way, it encourages his readers to empathize with King and his cause. Second, it aligns King and his movement with powerful moral authorities. If King and his protesters are like Jesus, what does that make the men his letter addresses?

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What King finds illogical about this claim is that it blames the victims for the fact that others will commit violence to prevent them from getting what is rightfully theirs.  King offers three analogies to show why he feels that this is illogical.  He says that it is like blaming Socrates for being so committed to truth that people got tired of him.  He says that it is like blaming Jesus for being so committed to God that it caused others to hate him and execute him.  Perhaps the easiest to understand of his analogies is where he says that it is like blaming a person who has property if someone steals the property.  As King says,

Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?

We all have the right to keep our property.  Of course, at the same time, it is very possible for others to become jealous of our property and want to take it from us.  If they do so, we condemn the thieves rather than condemning the person who actually owned the property.

It is the same, King says, with his followers.  They have God-given rights.  As they demand these rights, it makes others angry and those people commit violence.  It is illogical to condemn those demanding rights, just as it is illogical to condemn the property owner whose property is stolen.

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