Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A Master of Peaceful Protests and Persuasive Rhetoric
To fully understand Dr. King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” you must understand what times were like when King wrote his letter, who Dr. King was, and the criticism that Dr. King faced. The 1950's and 1960's were turbulent times for African Americans as they fought for equal rights as Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South dictated where blacks could sit in a restaurant or on a bus, they excluded blacks from certain jobs and neighborhoods, they segregated schools and prohibited blacks from voting in elections. There were 4,730 known lynchings of black men and women. There were hangings, burnings, beatings, and even house bombings or arson (Pilgrim 2012). There were also many landmark events during this time period. In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in schools was unlawful. In 1955, Rosa Parks, a secretary for the Montgomery branch of the National Associate for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. She was jailed and this led to the first major involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. He led the 382 day boycott of the city buses by black people and their supporters. The boycott led to the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (Clayborne 2010).
Dr. King grew up in the segregated South, in Georgia, the son of a pastor. He later received his PhD in 1955 and also became a pastor. Before his involvement in the bus boycotts and the SCLC, he was a member of an executive committee of the NAACP (The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. 10). King was heavily influenced by the nonviolent movement of Mohandas Gandhi. He was quoted as saying, “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” His mode of operation relied on boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and peaceful nonviolent resistance and noncooperation. King said of the buy boycotts, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people-a black people-who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization” (Adelman & Johnson 2007). During the boycotts, King's home was bombed with his wife, Coretta, and one of his daughters inside. Still, he held to his nonviolent beliefs when an armed, angry mob of blacks crowded his home demanding justice. He said, “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot resolve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence... We must meet hate with love” (Adelman & Johnson 2007).
King had his critics ranging from racist whites who wanted to uphold Jim Crow laws to what King called “moderate whites” who wanted all change to come through legislation. He even saw criticism from other Civil Rights leaders such as Malcom X who said of King's movement, “Concerning nonviolence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks,” and “We should be peaceful, law-abiding—but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked” (X 1964).
King was jailed for his actions in Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham and was the subject of an open letter from eight well-known, white, liberal clergymen in January of 1963. One excerpt from the letter stated, “We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could be properly pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.” The letter continued, “However, we are...
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King, Martin L., Jr. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Letter. 16 Apr. 1963. Liberation: An Independent Monthly. N.p.: n.p., 1963. 10+. African Studies Center - University of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
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Pilgrim, David. "What Was Jim Crow?" What Was Jim Crow. Ferris State University, 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
X, Malcolm. "A Declaration of Independence." Speech. Park Sheraton Hotel, New York. 12 Mar. 1964. A Declaration of Independence by Malcolm X. Teaching American History. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
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