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Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary

By delaneycorcoran Oct 16, 2014 1167 Words
In April of 1963, a newspaper released articles written by several clergymen criticizing Martin Luther King Junior’s most recent activities and stating that the activities were unwise and untimely. In the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” MLK addresses the clergymen’s concerns by explaining and justifying why his civil disobedience should be supported.

To start off, MLK explains that he is in Birmingham because injustice is there. He defends his right to be there fighting for his rights. He then compares himself to the Apostle Paul to make a connection between Paul and himself. MLK believes that the clergymen have put their criticisms out there without exploring all the many causes of the injustice.

MLK then explains in great detail, the four basic steps to a nonviolent campaign. The first step is, to have a collection of facts to determine whether injustice is present. The southern Christian Leadership Conference confirmed that Birmingham had been practicing racial injustice. Soon after that the SCLC began the second basic step: negotiation. The SCLC attempted to negotiate with the white leaders in Birmingham, however, not very long after the negotiation, the attempt to end the racial injustice wasn’t successful. When the SCLC realized this they made a decision to prepare to protest; they just had to wait for the right time. Before the protests, they went through the third basic step of a nonviolent campaign: self purification. They had to determine if they were ready to work nonviolently, and be able to suffer the consequences of their actions. After that is when they began to start the fourth and final step: direct action. The SCLC waited until the mayoral election in Birmingham was over. The winner of the election happened to be, Albert Boutwell, a pronounced segregationist. This pushed the protests to finally begin. MLK understands that negotiation is more valued than protesting; however, the negotiation can’t happen without the protesting. He’s aware that this causes a crisis and tension, but it’s the only way to obtain a negotiation in good faith. He then explains in great detail that tension created by direct action is the only way for the segregation to end.

King then turns to discuss the criticisms from the clergymen saying that the SCLC action was untimely. He lets them know that there is never a direct-action campaign that anyone ever thought was well-timed. King claims that the privileged groups will always be opposed to any type of action that threatens the status quo. They will always consider it untimely no matter when the direct-action is.

MLK states that the black community has been waiting for more than 340 years and that there is no more time to wait. He then launches into how extreme the black community has had to suffer over the years. He talks about the constant abuses then goes into how they have to explain to their sons and daughters that they aren’t allowed to do all the same activities as the other white children. King hopes that the clergymen can understand and excuse his and his brethren’s impatience.

King then switches over to stating that the clergymen are anxious of the black man’s willingness to break laws. He is the first one to admit that he will obey just laws, however the laws that the black community are breaking are unjust laws. He quoted St. Augustine saying that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

MLK then gets into distinguishing the difference between just and unjust laws. He claims that a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. He once again quotes St. Augustine saying that “ any law is that degrades human personality is unjust.” He argues that an unjust law not only hurts the oppressed, but also the oppressors, since it gives them a false sense of control. He then gets into explaining how segregation is unjust because it is inflicted on a minority. King then explains more detail how sometimes a law is unjust in its application. The law becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation. To sum up his argument about just and unjust laws he talks about how the laws in Nazi Germany were the reason the Jewish were prosecuted and that he would have openly disobeyed the laws to support the oppressed.

The next topic King brings up is that he has two honest confessions to make, one being that he is extremely disappointed in the white moderate. He claims that they value order over justice, which makes it easier for the injustice of segregation to continue. King believes that the white moderate cannot tell the difference between nonviolent direct action and the violence of the oppressors. In example, he cannot believe that the clergymen put blame on the black community for the violence of segregation.

King’s next disappointment is in the white church. He originally felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the south would be some of his strongest allies in his fight for civil rights. Unfortunately, he was wrong and some of the white churches have been his outright opponents. King states that the church believes that segregation is a social issue, which the church has no real concern in. He wants everyone to know how the church has changed. King uses the metaphor to say that the church once was a thermostat and now is a thermometer. He’s stating that at one point the church was in control. The church controlled the mores of society. Now, at the time that King is writing his letter from jail, the church is weak and does not have a voice in anything that is going on. The church just takes all the information in and changes with the status quo.

Further, King finds optimism when thinking back on the black community history in America. They have survived through slavery and still pushed through to fight for their freedom in America. Despite the abuse, humiliation, and injustice that the black community has endured, they will still fight for their freedom throughout the nation.

Before wrapping up his letter to the clergymen, King addresses the police who have claimed to be nonviolent when it came to the protests. He states that the clergymen have been ignorant toward the police and their violent discipline towards the black community. King hopes that eventually the clergymen will see what has been happening this whole time.

Finally, MLK finishes with apologizing for length of the letter and anything the overstates the truth. He hopes the clergymen will understand what has led him to all those certainties and that he will be able to meet with each one of them, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. He hopes that all of the prejudice and segregation will soon be washed away.

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