Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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What is the main claim Martin Luther King makes in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?  

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Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his response to criticism from eight white clergymen regarding his presence in Birmingham, Alabama, during a bus boycott brought about by egregious actions of the City of Birmingham, has more than one main point.

First, King must respond directly to the criticism that he should not have involved himself in the Birmingham racial unrest, which, according to his critics, would work itself out in time. King's larger argument is that racial inequality does not "work itself out." Rather, those who suffer from inequality must take the steps—in King's case, nonviolent steps—necessary to insure that long-overdue equality is established.

To answer the first criticism, King points out that he is in Birmingham because he has been invited by a group with which he is affiliated, and he and his followers are simply honoring their obligation to support those in Birmingham who are suffering under the dominant white power structure in that city. More importantly, however, King argues the following:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here....I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

King effectively extends the issue (which is not a problem unique to Birmingham) to the entire country and argues that injustice in any location threatens justice throughout the land. As a skilled preacher, he makes this point visual with his image of a "single garment of destiny": something that is all-inclusive, with whites and blacks connected in a "network of mutuality." King's point, then, is that he is in Birmingham because that city is the latest and most obvious example of racial injustice.

A second criticism from the clergymen is that King and his followers are moving too quickly to confront racial inequality:

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?"

Even though King and his followers engage in nonviolent protest, his critics argue that even this form of protest is not warranted and that, in time, Birmingham will resolve its racial problems. King replies to this argument with a short history lesson:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

King alludes to nations in places traditionally thought to be "less advanced" than the United States that are actually moving "with jetlike speed," an image that is new and startling to his readers in 1963. King subtly places the United States in the category of a backwater country with respect to racial equality.

Extending his argument about time, King points out that

Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.

In other words, responding to the criticism that he and his followers are demanding too much too soon, King argues that time has no dog in the fight for racial equality, but it can be used "destructively" by opponents of racial equality who argue for endless patience.

King's letter is a masterful argument both for his presence in Birmingham during its most serious outbreak of racial unrest in the 1960s and against the clergy's argument that patience and time will, without King's form of nonviolent protest, solve the racial inequality that sparked the protests.

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The key claim Martin Luther King makes in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" is that, in demonstrating in Birmingham, the "Negro community" was not deliberating choosing a provocative option but, in fact, their only option: "the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."

All the "four basic steps" of nonviolent campaigning, King says, have been followed by the leaders of the black community, but the steps failed to engage the "city fathers," who continually refused to negotiate "in good faith" with them. King reiterates again that the community, seeing itself as "the victims of a broken promise," had "no alternative except to prepare for direct action." While the community took all the steps it could to ensure that nonviolence would be the order of the protests, including running workshops on the subject, it had already pursued all the legal channels critics of the movement suggest should have been utilized before direct action.

King's main point is that it is not an issue, for him, of not wanting to negotiate. On the contrary, negotiation "is the very purpose of direct action," with nonviolent direct action serving to push the white community to the point where it must actually confront the issue it had previously tried so hard to ignore. "Constructive, nonviolent tension" is the entire purpose of a direct action program, when the "dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress" use unjust laws to enforce segregation and prevent the achievement of freedom for the black community by any other means. Because freedom is never willingly given away to the oppressed, as King states, nonviolent demonstrations, far from being the behavior of an extremist, are simply the only remaining option to which King and his fellow protesters have recourse.

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In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King's main claim is to promote the urgent need for and biblical soundness of nonviolent protest.

King wrote the letter in response to a letter written by Birmingham clergymen, published in the Birmingham Post Herald, protesting against King's demonstrations in Birmingham. These clergymen, although they expressed opposition to segregation, promoted patiently waiting for justice rather than active protest. They also argued that King's protest, while nonviolent, incited violence in others.

King refutes their argument for waiting for justice by pointing out that no gains in civil rights have ever been made "without determined legal and nonviolent pressure," because "privileged groups" rarely give up their privileges without such pressure. He further asserts that individuals are likely to see the truth of immoral actions and be willing to make changes, but groups, whose members solidify each other's views with pressures, never come to understand what of their actions are immoral: "groups tend to be more immoral than individuals." For this reason, King knows that progress in civil liberties can only be made if the group of racist whites holding onto their privileges are pressured into extending their privileges towards others.

King refutes the clergymen's arguments against nonviolent protestation by explaining exactly what steps are taken in a nonviolent protest and how the steps can be biblically justified. In refuting their statement that nonviolent protest should be censured because, though it strives to be nonviolent, it incites violence in others, King questions their logic:

But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? ... Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

In saying the above, King is pointing out that the violence does not stem from the innocent people such as the man who is robbed and Jesus; it stems from the evil outside of the innocent people. Therefore, the only way to stop the violence is not by condemning peaceful fights against it but by "protecting the robbed and punishing the robber," meaning protecting those who are treated unjustly and punishing those who instigate unjust, violent treatment.

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