Letter From Birmingham Jail Summary
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. composed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He had been jailed for taking part in organizing a peaceful protest. The protest challenged the racial segregation practiced by the city government of Birmingham and by retailers in the city. He wrote the letter in response to a statement published by eight white clergymen in Alabama calling for battles against prejudice and segregation to be waged in courtrooms rather than in the streets. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who had established the Alabama Christian Movement in the mid-1950s, had encouraged King to focus the efforts of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in Birmingham. Shuttlesworth had challenged the white leadership in the city, leading to his arrest for attempting to desegregate a bus in 1957 and to having his church blown up in 1958.
Philosophically, Aquinas, Socrates, and Kant influenced King. King devoted himself to one major overarching goal in the letter—to protect the right to use civil disobedience as a means of protest to preserve the potential effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The Birmingham protest was scheduled to coincide with the Easter shopping season with the intent of boycotting commercial establishments. At one point, several stores, hoping to thwart the boycott. offered to integrate public facilities with the hope of avoiding a disruption in the busy shopping season. However, Eugene “Bull” Connor who was the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham threatened to prosecute any merchants who participated and the integration did not take place. The SCLC began protesting in Birmingham in early April of 1963. The city was not in agreement about the protests, and not just across racial lines. A new Commissioner of Public Safety had defeated Connor and the new leader was far more moderate on racial issues. Some blacks were against the demonstrations because they feared that the progress, albeit slow, that was being made would be negated. Others felt slighted for being left out of the planning stage and a black oriented newspaper in the region accused King of acting out of self-interest for the sake of gaining publicity. King saw being jailed as a way of inspiring support for the movement, of expanding the scope of his work via national press coverage, and as a way of prodding the federal government into action. On Good Friday, he violated an injunction against protesting and was put in prison. He completed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” before his release on bail on the twentieth of April.
The letter is addressed to clergymen whom he specifically addresses as his fellows. He tells them that he is in Birmingham not simply due to organizational ties, but primarily because social injustice exists there. He cites his credentials to be seen as a credible source of information on the topic of the injustices, which he opposes, pointing out that he is well educated on the matter. As the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which serves all southern states from its headquarters in Atlanta, he has among his affiliated organizations the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights with whom the SCLC shares resources. His goal is convince his letter’s audience that he is as capable and educated as they on the subject of racial discrimination. He appeals to their sense of pathos by describing the tribulations his people have gone through, such as beatings at the hands of law enforcement officials and lynch mobs. He uses powerful imagery to force his audience to empathize with his people.
He justifies the need for protest and the advancement of civil rights. Drawing upon one of humankind’s darkest periods, he gives examples of laws that are unjust and unfair while still being legal. “We should never forget,” he writes, “that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal,’” He asserts that he would, had he lived in Germany at the time, “have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” He goes on to express his disappointment with the present day church and his fear that it will lose its effectiveness should it drift from the spirit of the early church. He says it risks becoming, “an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” Besides using his personal experiences as a way of seeking pathos in his audience, he attempts to connect more personally by using the second person narrative voice.
In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, or passive resistance, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” encourages the use of love as a conduit to overcome hatred. In May of 1963, the SCLC encouraged a march of black schoolchildren, which resulted in violent responses from officials, but ultimately encouraged President John F. Kennedy to initiate a comprehensive civil rights bill which was passed by Congress after Kennedy’s death. Not only did this become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, it also cemented Martin Luther King’s iconic status as a leading moral and political figure in America.
Summary of Letters from Birmingham Jail Essay
777 WordsNov 2nd, 20104 Pages
October 6, 2010
Summary of M.L.K.’s Letters from Bringham Jail Martin Luther King Jr's “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written during his 8 day sentence in jail in 1963. He chose to travel and protest in Birmingham due to the fact that it was widely known as one of the most segregated city in the U.S. The letter not only addresses the issues of unjustly being arrested for being an "extremist" of his approach to the protest, and of the incompetence of the church but its also an appeal for things to be seen from his point of view. One line that caught my eye was when King said that he would have, "aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist…show more content…
Time and time again, King had been told to just wait it out, that it wasn't the right time and when he finally did go through with his plans, his non-violent protest was confined and charged with parading without a permit. Martin Luther King talks about how he should be able to protest and talk about his cause as much as he likes because the only other way to reach out to people is through acts of violence. And violent measures would not be too much to ask considering how much Negroes had been harassed, treating differently by law enforcement and in reference to the article, even amusement parks and churches. Its surprising that even while imprisoned, while knowing that his efforts have been futile, Martin Luther King still wrote diplomatically. He wrote objectively and makes sure that even if he does have any ill or resentment towards the authority of Birmingham, its not shown. On his part, its a smart move made because it enforces his belief of non violence and shows the clergyman whom had asked him and his organization to pull back from the workshops what his real intentions are. In my opinion his writing style was the perfect manipulation; whoever reads this will feel exactly how he felt. The Negroes who were beaten, degraded, separated, picked on will feel his pain and those who want there to be equality all around will want to make sure it happens. In Martin Luther King's eyes, illegal and legal are portrayed in how a person sees the act.