In his letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King responds to the criticism of his fellow clergymen who have expressed their dissent at the demonstrations by Negroes in Birmingham. He begins his letter on the premise of rebutting the contentions of his detractors that his actions in leading his fellow black protesters was “unwise and untimely”. He sets out to address their concerns about his being an “outsider” and leading the demonstrations in Birmingham.
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The first argument Dr. King offers to justify the demonstrations is the underlying racial persecution and blatant prejudice that the Negroes have faced through the ages, which has left them with no alternative but to resort to violent means to achieve their ends of justice. He supports his argument by offering evidence of the persistent attempts of the Negro community to reach out to their white brethren. Dr. King rebuts the contention of the Alabama clergymen that the demonstrations were “unwise” in the light of the negotiations that were taking place with the white community. He offers evidence to show that all the so called peace initiatives offered by the economic community were no more then token assurances, producing broken promises that were never meant to be kept and thereby increasing the Negro’s burden of misery and despair. Additionally, Dr. King also points to the fact that time and again, the Negro has subdued his needs and his quest for equality in order to accommodate his white brethren, with insignificant results to show for his sacrifices.
Thus, Dr. King rebuts the contentions of his detractors that his actions were “untimely” by demonstrating that hope had died in the Negro’s heart that there would ever be a right time to press for his needs. He states that the waiting, when viewed in the context of the vicious mobs lynching Negroes, the racial policemen assaulting Negroes and the clouds of inferiority generated by the practice of segregation, is unjustified. He further states: “we know through painful experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He reiterates the fact that the Negro has always been told to “wait” but he had simply waited too long – for 340 years. The “wait” that has been ringing in his ears has come to symbolize a “never”, therefore immediate action was justified.
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Dr. King also addresses the contention of his detractors that his actions were “unwise” in the light of the so- called negotiations with the white community. He agrees with the clergymen that the path of negotiation is always better than the path of violence. However he argues that the demonstrations in fact would lead to and facilitate negotiations, forcing an unwilling oppressor to the negotiating table through the creation of a crisis where the long awaited cause of the Negro would have to be addressed. Therefore, this strategy, rather than being unwise, was in fact calculated to achieve the desired end that was sought.
Dr King also justifies his advice to his fellow Negroes to break certain laws and obey others. He makes a clear distinction between just and unjust laws. Unjust laws are those that are out of harmony with moral law, disjointed from natural law, disassociated from eternal law and degrade the human personality. He further reinforces his argument by pointing to the fact that a law cannot be just unless it is applied equally across the spectrum, to all people. A law that applies to some and not to others is not an equitable law and therefore, it is unjust. A law that advocates the sin of separation and segregation is thus an unjust law.
Dr. Martin then reiterates the distinction between a scenario when breaking the law is justified versus the general principle that breaking the law in itself is bad. He is in agreement that in principle, unlawful conduct that is created through the breaking of laws is not correct or right. However, the moot point is whether or not the law in question is a just or an unjust one. If the law is a just one, it is to be obeyed at all costs, if it is an unjust one, then breaking it is justifiable, since the unjust law is in contravention of the divine law of morality and equality of all human beings.
Dr. Martin Luther King thereby justifies his support for the cause of civil disobedience. While deploring violence in all its forms, he nevertheless supports the right to protest through non violent means in order to achieve freedom and equality. He is prepared to accept the label of “extremist” in order to advocate the cause of civil disobedience. He questions eloquently whether he is an extremist for love or for hate? For justice or for injustice? He points out the example of Jesus Christ who was also crucified as an extremist – but he was an extremist for love. On the other hand, the two thieves condemned with him, while being crucified for the same reason of being extremists, were in fact extremists for immorality.
Thus while Dr. King starts out to address the concerns of the clergymen on his “Unwise and untimely” actions, he ends up with an eloquent argument in the cause of civil disobedience. Through an elucidation of the nature of just and unjust laws and through his justification for breaking of unjust laws, Dr. King sends a clarion call to his fellow Negroes to the civil disobedience movement.
The thesis upon which this essay was based was focused upon proving how Dr. King addressed the concerns of his detractors about his “unwise” and “untimely” actions. However during the course of the arguments, it will be seen that the thesis has evolved to reach a point where the thesis statement has to be revised to read: “When is civil disobedience justified?”. In this way, it may be seen that in the process of supplementing arguments for the initial thesis statement, a different thesis statement has been derived.
- King, Martin. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. “Statement by Alabama Clergymen”.
- Rosenwasser, David and Stephen, Jill. Writing analytically.