Why did several clergyman write an open letter about Dr. King's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The clergymen who wrote the open letter to the Birmingham community did so to denounce the peaceful demonstrations and to recommend working through the courts to solve problems. The letter was authored by eight white men.

The letter begins by explaining that they wrote another piece months before that recommended dealing with issues of race and justice through the courts. They remind the reader that their earlier statement recommended obeying court decisions while still attempting to change things through legal means. The men say that since they wrote their piece, "responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest."

Next, the authors say that there are demonstrations by their "Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders." They want to convince people that they understand how frustrating it is to wait for things to change -- but at the same time, they don't think the protests are an intelligent thing to do.

Instead, they counsel that local citizens "of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro" work together to fix the problem through "open and honest negotiation of racial issues in our area." They do not like that outsiders have come in and led protests. They say that even peaceful protests can be seen to incite violence. 

They end their statement by commending the community, the media, and the police for the calm demonstrations. They also ask the "Negro community" to stop supporting the protests and demonstrations. They write, "When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets."

Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to this open letter with his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," where he explains the methods and benefits of nonviolent protest and reaffirms his commitment to the demonstrations. 

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The clergy that wrote an open letter questioned the timing and purpose of Dr. King's and others' actions.  Their focal point revolved around the idea that the protests were "unwise" and "untimely."  These ministers were opposed to segregation, but preached a sense of patience and caution in demanding change.  This was out of the idea that the time period was so volatile and segregation seemed to be so embedded that the ministers did not think that opposition in the manner that Dr. King and his followers was advisable.  Yet, it is here in which Dr. King starts his letter.  He stresses that the need to rise against the injustice being displayed in Birmingham is what makes the moment, the "fierce urgency of now," so intensely important.  Dr. King's primary point in his letter is that "direct action" is needed.  There can be no waiting, as suggested by the clergymen, because "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Whereas the clergy writing the letter that prompted King's response stressed forbearance and patience, Dr. King suggested the opposite in that waiting for injustice to pass and doing little to oppose it actually emboldens it, making it stronger.

Read the study guide:
Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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