|Reaction Paper of Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is no doubt the Marin Luther King, Jr. had a profound impact on the United States of America. Few people have moved a nation with the power of his words the way he did and still does. If one doubts this, he need only read this letter written by King to his fellow clergymen to understand the power of his words. As King sat in a jail in Birmingham, AL, he was chastised by other church leaders for the actions he had taken which led directly to his present circumstances. His response, in the form of a letter, addresses those men’s concerns and explains his actions and hopes not because he felt the need to justify himself to the world but because they were “fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”
As a reverend, King didn’t believe in violence and wanted to end segregation and its evils in a nonviolent way. His movement followed four basic steps. The first was to determine if the facts showed that an injustice truly existed. This was obvious to anyone especially in the south where signs like “white” and “colored” made it clear that there were two distinct standards for the races. There were also many acts of violence which occurred where the perpetrators were never found if acknowledged at all.
The second was negotiation. King writes that talks with local merchants did produce promises that the segregation would stop and that the signs indicating white or colored would be removed. At first it seemed it would work but before long the signs came back and life went back to normal. The third step, self-purification was achieved through workshops to ensure that those participating in nonviolent activity would be able to withstand the abuse, verbal and physical, without retaliating in kind. This would prepare them for the fourth step, direct action, which came in the form of sit-ins, marches and parades.
King spent a lot of time explaining the difference between just and unjust laws and the responsibility of citizens to adhere to just laws and fight against unjust laws. One example that King gives that illuminates his point is that of Austria during Hitler’s regime. Many Jews went to Austria where they were hidden from the Nazis. Hitler, being the ruler of Germany had the legal right to make the laws he did against the Jews but the law was unjust and immoral. Did that make the Austrians justified in breaking the law? King says yes and so his actions against unjust segregation laws is also justified.
King’s peers accuse him of provoking unrest to which King gives the following example of ignoring the building tension.
“[a boil] can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
King’s most important complaint is his disappointment for the “white moderate” who takes no stand but allows injustice to go on around him. He seems to understand those that hate him and aren’t ashamed to make their feelings known more than for the white moderates who stand on the sideline saying and doing nothing. He seems almost to have more respect for the former’s position than the latter.
This powerfully written letter withstands the test of time. It is just as relevant today in its substance as it was in 1963. Dr. King did not usually feel the need to justify himself; I’m sure he felt that that would occur between God and himself. This situation was different because these men that had questioned his actions were, like him, men of God. This was an opportunity to hold a hand out across race to bridge a gap in the human race. I can’t imagine that some of them were moved, perhaps even to action.