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The Aspects Of Civil Rights Movement In Letter From A Birmingham Jail

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. At the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and other African American leaders decided to concentrate their power in the most segregated city in America’s Birmingham, Alabama. As the nonviolent protest increased MLK was arrested in April 12, 1963 for breaking an unjust law against political demonstration, held for a day with no permission to his right to call a lawyer. When he finally contacted his lawyer Dr. King wrote a letter call “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Answering an article in a newspaper calling him “unwise”; in this letter Dr. King explains four steps of his nonviolent protest which are: fact finding, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. In this essay I will be analyzing the letter from two different points of view: moral and legal. Also, we will be analyzing Dr. King’s actions and consequences and why he kept his position.

A direct action is the creation of a situation that will inevitably open the door to negotiation. The strategy that Dr. King used was a nonviolent direct action as a form of activism that sought to create conditions that directly pressured the power structure (government) to change or to make clear for a larger audience. The power structure is engaged in oppression (segregation) that should not be allowed to stand. In other words, stop the segregation in Birmingham the most racial city, where the small offenses such a sign in a restaurant or the rules in the buses and the big offenses were attacking African American houses throwing bombs in them. As Dr. King says in his letter “freedom is never voluntary given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He realized that the government would never make a change if the minorities never asked for it, so his idea was to show the government in a pacifist movement that African Americans were tired, annoyed, and disappointed with the racial problem that was affecting the United States for a long time. African Americans will not take “wait” for an answer because they took that already for the past340 years and they understood that “wait” is a different way to tell them “Never”. It is important to understand that at this moment, nonviolent direct action was just one of several possible responses to the continued oppression of African Americans. Other groups advocated for violence or armed resistance during the 1960s, while some figures argued for a more gradual approach to change because of their fear of civil disorder. Malcolm X, a member of the Nation of Islam, for example, argued for black separation from whites and armed resistance when attacked. Dr. King labeled such beliefs as examples of the “bitterness and hatred” that would end violently if other channels for constructive change were not allowed.

Dr. King uses appeals to emotion throughout the essay to dramatize the impact of segregation and racism on African Americans and to humanize them. An example of this is in the letter when he says how do you tell your six years old daughter with tears in her eyes that she cannot go to the new park because “Funtown” is closed to colored children. King gave the readers different examples of how African Americans were treated just because of his color and he also exposed the injustice and inequality that they dealt with every day. When King used the example of a little girl with “tears welling up in her eyes” as her parents explained to her that racism prevents her from attending an amusement park, the idea of an innocent child pulls at the heart strings of the reader and thus makes the readers more sympathetic to the abused humanity of African-Americans.

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While Dr. king was in jail eight clergymen issued an article in a newspaper where they accused King of being an “outsider” and that he is not related to the community in Alabama therefore it shouldn’t be his business. As response to this allegations Dr. King wrote on his letter “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Alabama was affecting the African American community with heavy segregation and racism which was a national problem back in the 1960s and was affecting every African American in the country. This is why Dr. King decided to focus his efforts trying to make the state of Alabama think that if the state collapses and avoids segregation the rest would do the same.

Morality is an importance aspect of this letter. Attention needs to also be put on the legal aspects and how they are shown in this document. Dr. King argues that in Alabama African Americans are the majority and none of them can vote. Alabama does the impossible to prevent them to vote. This leads Dr. King to ask, “Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that the state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?” Democratically elected or a direct democracy is where the people directly deliberate and decide on legislature and the people elect representatives such as presidents or senators. But why African Americans couldn’t exercise their right if there are “people” from the same community? And here is where the comparison between just and unjust laws appears. Just laws are a code or rule men made with morals that creates equality in a society. On the other hand, we have unjust laws that degrades people from the society and distinguishes them for their looking or aspect or in one word “segregation.” Dr. King is trying to make readers understand that law is a synonym of equality in the eyes of justice everybody must be equal and judged for breaking the law and no for their skin color.

An important purpose of this essay is to mobilize not only African Americans but also white moderates, who had been sitting on the sidelines of the Civil Rights Movement. He says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate.” King directly criticizes white moderates to drive home the point that their complacency and attitude toward African Americans are part of the problem. King references Christian and American examples of civil disobedience to help them understand that the actions of the protestors are not extreme at all. By using sources of authority that align with the beliefs of his audience.

Works Cited

  1. King, Martin L. “Letter from a Birmingham” 1863
  2. Joseph L. Locke and Ben Wright, eds. The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook, Volume Two: Since 1877. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019

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