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