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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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King’s purpose in writing the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."

Summary:

In the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King's purpose was to defend the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. He aimed to address criticisms from white clergymen who called his actions "unwise and untimely," and to highlight the urgency and moral imperative of the civil rights movement.

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What was the goal of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was, in his highly-regarded August 1963 letter to a group of white clergy who questioned and criticized his activities in Birmingham, Alabama, seeking, from the vantage point of his jail cell, to both correct the misconceptions held by those clergy, and to justify the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to which he subscribed. Why was King in Birmingham in the first place? As he states early in his essay, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." Racial injustice had stood out as this country's most compelling long-term social wound. One-hundred-years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the African slaves brought to North America in chains and treated like so-much human chattel, here was Reverend King sitting in a jail cell in the American South struggling for the simplest of conditions: social and legal equality among blacks and whites. 

The group of white clergy to whom King was responding had questioned both his presence in Birmingham and his tactics, and King was forceful and articulate in defending both. To the intended recipients of his letter's criticism of his mere presence in Alabama, King appropriately noted that the injustices he and his colleagues and followers sought to address could not be viewed in geographic isolation. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. . .Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider." King, in other words, had a moral right and commitment to be in Alabama because Alabama is a part of the country of which he was a citizen, and arbitrary, politically-defined borders could not insulate what crimes against humanity occurred within them from the critical gaze of those sitting across these invisible borders.

With regard to the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience to which King subscribed, he noted the failure of passivity and common conceptions of humanity to address the legitimate grievances that brought him to Birmingham. In his letter, he wrote, "You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being." Had the whites who presumably shared his concerns regarding racism and racial segregation been more active in addressing these issues, King emphasized, he and the other "outsiders" would have had no need to be in Birmingham. Passivity and the pursuit of dialogue had failed in the face of repeated acts of terrorism directed against blacks, including home and church bombings and lynchings and the institutionalization of forced segregation. Birmingham, King observed, seemed determined to continue to defy peaceful efforts at desegregation, and its justice system was weighted heavily against people of color, resulting in a completely unacceptable state of being.

In his most persuasive defense of civil disobedience, he asked rhetorically of his detractors:

"You may well ask, 'Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

King's goal in issuing his "letter from a Birmingham jail" was to address criticisms directed against him by individuals who unarguably should have known better. The teachings of Jesus, he repeated, provided for the nonviolent activities that were solely intended to correct injustices. He hoped that his "letter" would serve, as it did, as a compelling defense of the tactics he endorsed and practiced in order to affect change.

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What was the goal of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail served both as an open letter to the general public and a response to an article by White clergymen titled “A Call for Unity” in which they criticized King’s tactics and activities. Circuit Judge W.A Jenkins issued an injunction on the activities proposed by King and his colleagues but this did not deter them. They proceeded with the demonstration in breach of the law which King asserts had to be done in his letter. He also responded to the criticism that it was “Outsiders” causing trouble in Birmingham by stating that they had a responsibility as African-American leaders to address the highly entrenched racial segregation in the area and everywhere else in the U.S. that such inequalities were perpetrated. King further responded to the criticism about not opting for negotiations or giving time to the new administration. He opined that it was non violent tensions that would force the oppressor to listen to the oppressed and begin the much needed dialogue. He closed by critiquing the clergy’s validation of the Birmingham police nonviolent approach to the demonstration in contrast to their typical hatred of the Blacks and not recognizing the nonviolent demonstrators which in a way they gave moral justifications to immoral activities.

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What was the goal of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

This letter was and open letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. as a response to a letter written by eight white clergymen, criticizing King's tactics.  The white clergy acknowledged that there were serious social problems that needed to be addressed, but they argued that street protests were divisive and unhelpful.  Instead, they argued that the civil rights movement should rely on a legal strategy of lawsuits to achieve change.

In this letter, King's goal is to explain why he thinks that his method of nonviolent protest is necessary.  He argues that waiting for change is futile.  Instead, you must go out and make change happen.  King also argued that people have a duty to disobey unjust laws.

King's goal in writing this letter, then, is to convince people that his tactics were just and right.  He hoped that this would help to convince them that they should support his movement.

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What was the goal of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

When King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the nonviolent mass protests of the Civil Rights movement were at their height and had gained national attention. While there was much vehement opposition to this movement and its goals, there was also a growing number of "sympathetic" people who argued that blacks did deserve more rights, but that it was not the right time. They criticized King's actions and called for him to wait for a better time. This type of argument was not new in American history.

King largely writes this letter in response to this argument. He poignantly points out that black Americans have been told to wait time and time again with little progress being made. He concludes that being told to wait really means "no" to their demands. He affirms his commitment to the Civil Rights movement and refuses to wait for a so-called "better time." Instead, he argues, black Americans deserve full and immediate political, economic, and social equality.

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What was the goal of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

The letter was written by King in response to "A Call for Unity," a statement by a group of white clergymen from Alabama. In the statement the clergymen acknowledged the existence of widespread social injustice, but maintained that justice was best served through the courts. The clergymen were highly critical of King and his methods of waging the struggle for civil rights. They particularly objected to street demonstrations and protests, which they believed to have been whipped up by "outsiders."

King responds by saying that African Americans cannot simply wait for the courts to deliver civil rights; they must continue with their strategy of nonviolent resistance. In other words, justice delayed is justice denied. White Christians like the "Call for Unity" clergymen need to take a firm stand. The issue of civil rights is a moral question, one that has a fundamentally religious dimension.

In writing the letter, King attempted to emphasize the religious nature of the civil rights struggle. He does this in order to take the civil rights movement beyond the inherently contentious world of politics and law and into a realm of timeless truths and eternal justice. He's also encouraging those involved in the civil rights struggle to continue with the fight, to look ahead and see the day when they, and not those such as the clerics who wrote the "Call for Unity," will be hailed as heroes.

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What was King's purpose in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses fellow clergymen in the South who have criticized him for leading nonviolent protests in Birmingham. These white clergymen openly condemned King for inciting trouble and violence through his actions, for traveling to a place not his own home to agitate for change, and for not waiting for a more opportune time to act. About halfway through his letter, having answered many of the specific complaints these clergymen raised, King arrives at the heart of why he is taking the time to write this particular letter. He states:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"... Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

King, as he says above, was frustrated at the way people who believed they were on his side were undermining his efforts to achieve racial justice. He wanted to confront such individuals because he felt they were creating more problems than the out-and-out racists. The lukewarm sympathizers were more damaging because they were people of authority, legitimacy, and reason, who, by questioning King's strategies, swayed other reasonable people away from the cause of achieving civil rights.

As King says, to achieve racial justice, people of goodwill simply have to get behind the idea that this is not going to happen without rocking the boat: justice, as he puts it, it must take precedence over order, and peace must come not by going along with injustice but by remedying it. His point in the letter is to take to task those "sympathetic" critics who continue to suggest strategies that have failed blacks repeatedly, such as waiting for a better day, not causing trouble, and hoping whites will come around if blacks grovel and are nice for long enough. King calls out the damage such so-called supporters cause, while at the same time making a strong case for his nonviolent methods and demands for immediate and effective change.

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What statement best describes King’s purpose in writing the Letter from Birmingham City Jail?

The purpose of writing this letter was to answer criticisms leveled against King and the civil rights movement by a group of white southern clergymen. In an open letter, they had argued that it was wrong for the civil rights movement to engage in demonstrations, which often degenerated into violence. They also held that the best way to achieve the perfectly just goals of the movement was through the courts.

King believed that such an assessment was naive, to say the least. The courts had shown themselves unwilling to advance the cause of civil rights; they were part of the same structure of injustice and white supremacy that had kept African Americans down since the end of Reconstruction. They couldn't, therefore, be relied upon to secure justice.

In his letter, King also takes the opportunity to remind the southern clergymen of their duty as Christians to stand up against injustice, even if that means defying the law. The issue of civil rights isn't purely legalistic; it's a moral crusade, a battle between right and wrong. And as Christians, the white clergymen should take their stand with the forces of right.

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