What are four different arguments in Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail?"

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. argues on behalf of direct action, argues that the newly elected local government can't be left to its own devices, argues that people have a moral obligation to obey unjust laws, and argues that white moderates are the real barrier to equality for black people.

When the eight clergymen authored their open letter to Birmingham recommending that people stop demonstrating and instead negotiate in the community and through the courts, King responded with his letter advocating direct action. He says that it's necessary to engage in direct action to make change, because things haven't changed despite promises being made. He says that nonviolent direct action isn't antithetical to negotiation and that the point of direct action is to force negotiation on issues it would rather avoid. He says "it seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." 

The open letter from the clergymen also said the demonstrations were untimely. King argues that having a new incoming local government isn't a good reason to cease demonstration. He says that the new administration "must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act." He points out that the new mayor, like the old one, is a segregationist who wants things to remain the same as always. He says that he believes the new mayor may come around if people put enough pressure on him.

He also addresses their "anxiety over [the demonstrators'] willingness to break laws." He calls it a legitimate concern and then explains that there are both just and unjust laws. While King believes in obeying just laws, he says that a person "has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." Unjust laws are immoral laws while just laws align themselves with a moral code. He says that if a law degrades human personality, then it is unjust, and that all segregation statutes are "unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality." King says that unjust laws must be broken openly and that the people who do so must accept the punishment -- as he has, by being put in jail for parading without a permit.

Finally, King argues that white moderates -- rather than extreme racists -- are the real barrier to equality. He says they are more interested in things staying orderly than in justice and equality for all citizens. King says, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." He says that his hope was white moderates would understand why they're demonstrating; the racial tension they expose already existed, but it was hidden. By demonstrating, they're giving it a chance to come into the open where it can be dealt with. He says that such people counsel him to wait and take his time changing things, but that nothing changes without "the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation." 

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say that there are some distinct arguments that Dr. King lays out beautifully in his letter.  The stages he outlines as justifying his campaign would each constitute an argument leading to action.  Dr. King argues that “there are four basic steps:”

…collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive,  negotiation, self- purification, and direct action.

Each of these represents a fundamental argument towards the situation that confronts Dr. King and his followers.  The idea of collecting the facts that indicate injustice comes from the overall laws that permit and allow segregation, and the police tactics used to substantiate such edicts.  The negotiation argument is what King uses to reflect that he and his followers have shown reasonability, yet have fallen as “victims of a broken promise.”  Simply put, Dr. King quotes St. Augustine in arguing that there cannot be any negotiation with laws that are substantively unfair and violate due process for “an unjust law is no law at all.”  It is in the third phase of self- purification where King achieves a moral transcendence.  It is this phase where King argues that non violent, active resistance is the key to initiating social change.  The “self- purification” to which King argues is essential for this moral transcendence is the resistance against violence and the commitment to active resistance through peaceful means, showing the moral inferiority of the opponent.  Finally, the direction action is what Dr. King ends his letter with, as a call for those who believe in righteousness and justice to take a stand against evil.  It is in these four phases where four distinct arguments are made in order to initiate the call to action, the need to transform the world into what should be as opposed to what is.

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