Letter from Birmingham Jail': Argumentative Essay

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“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? ... they didn’t put any dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them, poor people? Just take me to jail.” This passionately charged statement is from the world champion boxer Muhammad Ali concerning his resistance to fight in the Vietnam War. Burning up draft papers was a common form of protest against the Vietnam War. Beatles fans cried tears of joy, tore out their hair, fainted, and wet their seats in the presence of the Beatles. 70,000 activists across the country peacefully sat in segregated restaurants as an act of protest.

This was the culture of the 1960s and it was not a time of boredom. It was a time of many passions both calm and violent: the passionate clash of ideology that resulted, ironically, in the Cold War, the passionate sacrifice of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and the contagious passion of the Beatles with their counter-culture music that took over the world.

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The Civil Rights Movement started in the 1950s and took off in the 60s. Although events such as the Virginia High School Walkout where Barbara Johns demanded equal treatment as white students, the Brown v. Board of Education decision where the Supreme Court declared that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, and the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat all happened in the 1950s, these were events that sparked the initial Civil Rights movement. Most of the key events in the Civil Rights Movement occurred in the 1960s. It was in the sixties that actual legislative change happened. The fact that President John F. Kennedy made open his support for the civil rights movement contributed largely to the impact of the movement. JFK noted in 1963, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” Nonetheless, even though JFK proposed the Civil Rights Act in 1963, it was highly controversial and he did not live to see the act approved by Congress.

Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. also wrote his famous open letter“Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963. J.H. Patton writes, “King's ‘Letter’ was an essential response for civil rights to continue as a mass movement in Birmingham and beyond. The ‘Letter transformed the idea of reasonableness from the province of moderation alone and united it with justifications for direct civil disobedience. Consequently, the ‘Letter’ as a rhetorical response opened a new public frame for pragmatic, value-based identification with civil rights for historical and contemporary audiences. (Patton 1)” By creative use of kairos and pathos, the letter rebutted the claims of the moderate white clergy in Birmingham and changed King's rhetorical persona and presence.

The letter seemed like a symbolic and spontaneous enactment of King’s determination and drive to promote civil rights. However, in reality, writing a letter to speak to the people from jail had been on the agenda as a strategy. The strategy worked; the letter greatly encouraged and strengthened people in a period of hopelessness and pessimism. Dr. King’s passion can be felt throughout the entire letter. He ends the letter with a call for ‘creative extremists’:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill, three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. (Letter From Birmingham Jail)

King explains the reason behind the Civil Rights Movement’s direct action in a portion of his letter as well. For Americans who may not understand why there has to be a mass movement for equal rights in the first place, rather than a negotiation to achieve those rights, King notes,

You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. (Letter From Birmingham Jail, emphasis added)

The strong verbs, words, and phrases he chooses to use are charged with passion.

King further explains that this passionate and unique call stems from African-American experiences that are difficult to even imagine as he also illustrates in his letter as well. He notes “vicious mobs” that “lynch mothers and fathers” that “drown [siblings] on a whim.” He mentions “hate-filled policemen” who “curse, kick and even kill” your black friends and family, and the “vast majority” of twenty million African-Americans living “in an airtight cage of poverty amid an affluent society.” He outlines an emotional and moving scene between African children and parents in conversation as well:

… when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (Letter From Birmingham Jail)

Indeed, the publication of King’s letter in 1963, quoted in large portions in this paper, fanned the fire for the Civil Rights Movement even throughout the nation mourning JFK’s assassination in November of the same year.

In 1964, the following year the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson after the House approved the bill. The Act was a historic turning point since it was the first government interference on a legal level in the face of segregation. The Civil Rights Act was designed to end segregation in public spaces and concerning employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Thus, the Civil Rights Act is deemed one of the “crowning legislative achievements” of the civil rights movement (“The Civil Rights Act of 1964”).

The law prohibited the enactment and enforcement, of segregation. However, the passing of the Civil Rights Act did not change long-established societal norms at the snap of a finger. There was still a stigma around treating African-Americans the same as whites although the law prohibited discrimination.

Aside from the Civil Rights Movement, throughout the sixties, another major issue that united and ignited Americans across the country was the Cold War. The Cold War was a passionate clash of ideologies on a global scale between the United States and the Soviet Union. A direct physical confrontation between the two superpowers never occurred, but wars such as the Vietnam War and the Korean War were a result of these ideological clashes. Moreover, the threat of another great world war accompanying nuclear annihilation loomed at this time.

Historians cite the beginning of the Cold War as 1947 after World War II came to a close and the alliance between the Allies which included the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union ended. As the Soviet Union gained economic and political influence over Eastern Europe, the U.S. simultaneously gained influence over Western Europe through the Marshall Plan which was a program designed to reconstruct and stabilize 17 countries devastated by the war.

Although the Cold War proceeded from 1947 to 1991 (it came to a sudden end with the collapse of the Soviet Union) key events occurred during the sixties. For example, the Arms Race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War were all major events derived from the Cold War. Each of these crises emerged from a passionate clash of ideologies--the conflict between a capitalist America and a Communist Soviet Union rallying other countries to their cause.

During the Cold War, the nuclear arms race was a battle mainly between the Soviet Union and the United States who had superior weaponry and technology. In 1961, when John F. Kennedy was elected president, the Soviet Union leader then, Nikita Khrushchev, and the U.S. president met in Vienna, Austria. Khrushchev shocked Kennedy with his hostile and threatening attitude. Previously, in 1959, Khrushchev visited the United States and made headlines with his declaration, “We will bury you.” In August 1961, two months after the Soviet leader met with the leader of the free world in Vienna, Khrushchev “ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall to stop the flood of East Germans into West Germany” (“The Arms Race”). Due to these alarming developments, the U.S. had to take measures as well. The JFK library notes:

Kennedy ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces. He also added five new army divisions and increased the nation's air power and military reserves. The Soviets meanwhile resumed nuclear testing and President Kennedy responded by reluctantly reactivating American tests in early 1962. (“The Arms Race”)

The Arms Race took another nail-biting turn when the U.S. found out that the Soviet Union was secretly supplying missiles to Cuba. These missiles were supposed to protect Cuba from another US-sponsored invasion. The Cuban leader of the time, the communist revolutionary Fidel Castro, was an eyesore to the U.S. and the CIA had made many attempts to oust this neighboring leader such as the US-sponsored failed military invasion of Cuba consisting of 1,400 Cuban exiles in 1961 called “the Bay of Pigs Invasion.” As a way to protect their ally, the Soviet Union offered nuclear missiles to Cuba. Khrushchev also wanted to “level the playing field” as the U.S. had many nuclear sites set up in Western Europe and Turkey targeting the Soviet Union. The discovery of these missile sites under construction in Cuba led to not just a panic in the U.S. but worldwide consternation because of the fear of a nuclear war outbreak. JFK responded to this discovery with a naval blockade and quarantine and required the “removal and destruction” of the missile sites. For 13 days the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union persisted until “Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the missiles in return for an American pledge not to invade Cuba” (“The Cold War”). In this way, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end, but the Vietnam War was still ongoing. This was initially a war between North Vietnam supported by the Soviet Union and South Vietnam which was backed by the United States. Each side wanted to unify Vietnam under their ideology. As the U.S. became more involved in Vietnam, JFK told an interviewer, 'In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Vietnam against the Communists. . . . But I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. . . . [The United States] made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate—we may not like it—in the defense of Asia.' (“The Cold War”)

Eventually, over nineteen years, 58,000 American soldiers would be killed in the Vietnam War. In total, more than 3 million people died in the war, and more than half of these were Vietnam civilians. (“Vietnam War”). This war greatly influenced the counterculture movement during the sixties. The Hippies participated in protests fueled by the U.S.’s involvement in the vicious war and the unfairness of. Another aspect of the passionate '60s was the art and music that was incorporated into the protests. The Hippie community also embraced, “a style called “Psychedelic Art”...bright pallet and a combination of images and words to create an initially confusing image that resembled what their trips on acid looked like. The main goal of this form of art was to confuse the viewer,” which connected to their concept of self-reflection spiritually.

The pop culture was the highlight of the sixties and brought the most passion out of people. Acid, marijuana, the Beatles, and counterculture were a way of life. The Beatles created a syndrome over their fandom and promoted counterculture. It was a mania. During the time, the culture the Beatles had brought was such an anomaly and mystery.

According to The Guardian’s article, “in an infamous New Statesman essay Paul Johnson sneered: ‘Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.’(Beatlemania: 'The Screamers' and other tales of fandom)” Although Johnson didn’t look favorably upon the fervent Beatles fans, the Beatles brought out a wave of zeal that was the signature of the passionate 60s. The Beatles were irreverent to the old American values and invigorated the counterculture movement with their songs about love and their androgynous appeal.

Hippie culture was made up of an attempt to knock down America’s traditional values, thus, bringing counter-culture into the picture. People accepted themselves as the Beat Generation which was a group that rejected conformity and called themselves “hippies.” The Beat Generation had the goal of “overturn[ing] or transcend[ing] dominant American values” and utilized drugs for “carefully guided and structured, individual and contemplative experiences aimed at inner truths. (Counterculture Movements during the 1960's)” Controversial ideas arose from this goal of finding oneself against common American values which led to civil rights movements in the form of protests concerning African-Americans, homosexuals, and women.

In conclusion, the 1960s was a turbulent and revolutionary period. There was not a moment of peace and the sixties brought influence and change that would mold and direct the future. King’s letter during the Civil Rights Movement strengthened the fight for equal rights. The Civil Rights Act revolutionized how the government would view and consider all people as equal, in addition to legislative action for desegregation. Without these events, it is hard to imagine, but people would not be able to even eat in a restaurant due to the store’s white priority. The Cold War forever remains in America’s mind as one of the most unsettling times of tension. Throughout this whole decade, counterculture was the norm of the youth, although ironically its purpose was to oppose the norms of society. The Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, and Hippie community each took a toll during this time and left an impactful and significant mark in history as a decade of drugs, war, human rights, music, art, and passion.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail’: Argumentative Essay. (2024, February 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/letter-from-birmingham-jail-argumentative-essay/
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