Racial discrimination continues to be a prime tragedy of American history. Since the days of slavery to the reported unwarranted killings of unarmed black men in recent times, Americans of color have been on the receiving end of racial prejudice. Throughout this period, a number of leaders have stood up to advocate for a voice of equality for the community. Unfortunately, most of these leaders were seen as extremists, engineering social and political anarchy, and forced to suffer unfair consequences. One of America’s foremost civil rights leaders was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, Dr King was one of the main forces behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made racial segregation in publicly-owned facilities illegal. In 1963, Dr. King Jr. was detained for protesting the treatment of fellow minority groups, particularly the blacks, in Birmingham, Alabama. In the wake of his arrest, a number of clergymen criticized his nonviolent protest, branding him an extremist. His response to the accusations came in form of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on 16 April 1963, which addressed “my fellow clergymen” and tried to rebut what they called “unwise and untimely” activities (King n.p).
The African American civil right movement is credited for giving the minority groups in the U.S a shot at becoming first-class citizens. According to Osborn, the immense sacrifices made by leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, was the life force of this movement (23). Malcolm X was known as an aggressive leader and was branded a rebel early in his political career; however, Dr. Martin Luther King was seen as the complete opposite as he opted for non-violent direct actions, which came in form of dialogues between oppressed and oppressor races. Some historians see Dr. King as an optimist, who later discovered the use of aggressive action in getting the attention of the white American people. His realizations, nevertheless, led him to jail in Alabama where he wrote one of his best works. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an argument against the injustice of segregation and the need for civil disobedience through the use of direct action of civil disobedience, albeit in a non-violent manner.
The most admirable aspects reflected in Dr. King’s letter are his attitude as well as the restrained presentation. Perkins et al. say that despite Dr. King’s outright disappointment for the “white moderates” as well as the ‘white church’, he had no negativity towards these groups (12). Instead, through his manuscript, he highlighted the flaws of his opponents in addition to providing rebuttals to their positions of his actions as well as the plight of the African American population. According to Rieder, Dr. King in his letter blamed the white community based on ethics while also praising some for their positions of equality (33). For instance, he praises Reverend Stallings for welcoming the blacks in his house of warship, t on a non-segregated basis showing a cause of equality in white church. It can be argued that if his argument had been based on blaming the white population, the message on the true plight of the African American community as well as other minorities would be lost. Instead, Dr. King attempts to unite both whites and blacks to eliminate segregation on the basis of finding equality through ethics and understanding.
Another aspect that stands out in Dr. King’s letter is how it identifies racial differences, justice, and moderation. According to the letter, Dr. King does not understand the position held by his clergymen when they agree to the evilness of segregation but insists on the African American community to ‘wait’ for the right actions to be taken. In a passionate and emotional tone, Dr. King narrates the plight of the black community: “the lynching of your mothers and fathers; drowning your sisters and brothers, and a lack of answers for sons and daughters who keep asking why White people treat colored people so mean?” (King n.p). He asserts that racial segregation has led to name-calling where ‘nigger’ becomes the first name, ‘boy’ regardless of age becomes the middle name, and ‘John’ becomes the last. An impartial environment wives and mothers are never afforded the respected title of ‘Mrs’” (King n.p). As Perkins et al. say, Dr. King gives the audience the differences and struggles the African American society goes through on a daily basis under the white American culture. Dr. King later calls for justice not just in Birmingham but also for all races all across the U.S and the entire world when he says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King n.p). Additionally, he insists that for far too long, the minority races have been waiting for their rights both God-given and through the constitutions, and considering the prejudice felt by African Americans, “justice too long delayed is justice denied” (King n.p).
In all of Dr. King’s speeches or articles, none use quotes and allusions more than this Letter. As Barash says, Dr. King was a great narrator who moved masses by the clarity of his words and unique use of examples, a statement that is best evident in the Letter (44). After being labeled an extremist, Dr. King uses the examples of Jesus, Amos, and Paul from the Bible, Socrates in philosophy, as well as John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson in politics to show the positive side of extremism. According to Osborn, this allows his audience to understand his position when fighting for minority rights (33). Nevertheless, his continued association with Socrates is interesting. Dr. King felt that it was necessary to create a ‘tension’ to get the attention of the oppressor race. He also associates himself with Socrates when it comes to drawing the lines between lies and half-truths on racism. Another issue that becomes prominent with Socrates is the association with extremism. From his manuscript, he indicates his support of extremist tension is directed at just and unjust laws. An unjust law leads to prejudice while a just law stimulates inclusivity, a factor that led to the acceptance of extremism. Dr. King is able to use examples and quotes from a variety of fields to send through his message in a clear and undistorted manner.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is an argument that led to social change between the races. It was a clear and concise message that has been since quoted and cited in various fields of criminal justice, philosophy, and political science. Based on the text of the letter, it could be argued that Dr. King led a battle of wits and non-violence, which later brought in dialogue in a culture of monologue.
Barash, David P. Approaches to Peace. Vol. 199. Oxford University Press, 2017.
King Jr., Dr Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” UC Davis Legal Review, Vol. 26, 1992. P. 835.
Osborn, Michael. “Rhetorical Distance in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol 7, no. 1, 2004. Pp. 23-35.
Perkins, John et al. Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Moody Publishers, 2014.
Rieder, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2014.