Last updated: April 24, 2019
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Martin Luther King is the most important member of the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. There has never been, nor will there ever be, one who is able to best the accomplishments which King achieved, as well as the inspiration which he motivated within millions of Americans, both who had been oppressed and those who felt the apathy for the oppressed, yet had never been inspired to act on their convictions. Martin Luther King brought these two people together in record numbers and in a way never seen before or since and incited within them, the desire to change the culture in which they lived and been affected by, for too long.

The name of Martin Luther King was first brought onto the national stage with his involvement in the Birmingham Bus Boycott in 1955. (Garrow, 1981 pg. 123) Rosa Parks, a seamstress on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white man while riding home on the bus one day. She was later given a fine. However, this enforcement of the law, something which had not changed over the last 60 years since the inception of the Jim Crow south, ignited a firestorm within the African American community. A boycott was called on all public transportation in the city of Birmingham Alabama. After 382 days of the boycott, the city officials ended racial segregation on public transportation. (Garrow, 1981 pg. 147) King was arrested during the campaign and his involvement, as well as a large availability to the national press, the name of Martin Luther King was flung onto the national stage.

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King, a Baptist preacher who had previously rejected any role in the civil rights movement in order to continue to care for his church, now devoted all of his time to the civil rights movement and would begin a dizzying and controversial rise in the history of the civil rights movement as well as in American history. There were a few characteristics that helped to make King stand out. The first was that he preached non violence civil disobedience. This was in direct opposition to the stance that the Nation of Islam and another civil rights leader, Malcolm X preached as well as the future stance of the Black Panther Party which would come into power in the mid 1960’s. It was King’s beliefs as a Christian minister, as well as being motivated and inspired by the actions of Gandhi; the non violent spiritual leader of India who helped to eradicated the presence of Great Britain from their country in 1948. King stated: “Since being in India. I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Gandhi embodied in his life, certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.” (Abernathy, 1989 pg. 199) Despite criticism from other factions of the civil rights movement, King would always adhere to this ideology.

The first aspect and the most powerful of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, is the argument that King makes on behalf of his actions and the actions of other African Americans who are seeking their equal treatment under the law. Towards the end of his letter, King talks about the two spheres of African American thought that which are counterproductive. The first being those African Americans who have been so beat down and oppressed for so long, that the have become apathetic towards the cause for freedom. The second however, are the African Americans, Malcolm X, specifically, who seek to express their frustrations in colorful terms and through hatred, violence and separation from the society by calling white people devils and other derogatory terms. Together, both create a classic within American literature: Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

King’s opinion is not to be ignored nor confused with what it was in reality. King and his role in the demonstrations against the segregationist beliefs in practices in the South, but specifically, Birmingham, Alabama caused him to be imprisoned and was where he was writing this most famous letter; in the cell at the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, only a few months before his famous I Have a Dream speech. Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a response to eight white clergy who had openly criticized him for his illegal actions towards what King and millions of other African Americans felt, were immoral laws.                             In the beginning of the letter, King starts by directing and defining his opposite viewpoint to the members of the clergy who had been criticizing him. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham…. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” ( Commanger, 1969 pg. 97) This white power structure that King references, had to do with the police and the policy makers of Birmingham, but also was a direct reference to the leaders of the church in and around Birmingham, as the letter will continue in full detail, as King criticizes the actions, or lack there of, which the white church and its leaders, have failed to respond to the injustices of as King calls them “their white brothers.” King continues to express the necessity of these demonstrations as there have been many cases in the past in which well intentioned members of the white community and clergy have criticized the actions of the African American community, while being ignorant of the prejudices which they face on a regular basis. “Birmingham is probably the most segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negros has experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts.” (Commanger, 1969 pg. 98) This is a statement which may or may not incite the type of response that King would have wanted.  However, to allow for no confusion as to the difficulty that African Americans have in the pursuit of their most basic rights, King uses an example that he hopes, will pull at the heartstrings of those who will read his letter as he refers the question that his little daughter asked him one night. “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?, when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading `white’ and ‘colored’ when your first name becomes nigger, your middle name becomes boy… and your last name becomes John?” (Commanger, 1969 pg. 98) In this, King has presented his opinion and his desire to expedite the slow process of waiting for justice to come, as was the suggestion of the white members of the clergy who had been criticizing his actions.

Dr. King has no problem in requesting this as he has yet to have a chance to argue in the courtroom of public opinion, the justice of their case. Within the white community, this, if given the chance, would have more effect than seeing hundreds of African Americans being put in jail for disobeying the law. This resulted in the white community seeing these demonstrators as simply outside agitators and their actions are lost on an uncaring public. An open forum of dialogue is what King and the rest of the African American community had been hoping for. However, this chance was not afforded to them and to King specifically, despite his request for such a chance to make any lasting changes. King references the time in which he talked to the leaders of Birmingham’s economic community in order to have the stores within the community, remove the segregation signs from their store windows. King stated in his letter: “As weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.” (Commanger, 1969 pg. 98) This disappointment, as well as failure to elect city officials that will respect the rights of the African American, makes it necessary, in the mind of King and millions of others for action to take place. However, King never was for his entire life, against an open dialogue for progress and peace.

However important the other aspects of Dr. King’s argument were, it is the attempt to connect to the plural truths that both King and the white members of the clergy possess, or at least they should possess.  Dr. King was the most important civil rights leader in American history.  However, before he became famous, he and his father and grandfather were all preachers. Despite King being catapulted to fame after the Mississippi Bus Boycott in 1955, King still remained true to his true calling: to preach the word of God. This common bond of faith in Jesus Christ is what King references multiple times in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in an attempt to show the reason for his actions and the necessity of more members of the white churches, coming to the aid of their black brothers in the pursuit of their desire for equal treatment under the law. Not only does King reference the teachings and example of Jesus but also of the great Christian thinkers of the past and the fervency of the 1st century Christians who would rather be fed to the lions then go against their faith and what they knew to be right. King stated: “Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all” (Jackson, 2006 pg. 188) King also referenced the Old Testament figures of Shadrack, Meshach and Abendnego who rather than chose to eat what was unholy before the Lord and to worship the god of the king Nebuchadnezzar, choose to be fed to a fiery flame as they would rather do that than go against their consciousness and their God. King asks if there is such an ideology among the members of the white church when it comes to their seemingly apathy towards the plight that is suffered to them and ignored by an increasingly apathetic church. This is the theme that is seen throughout his letter.

Dr. King expresses he need for the help from the white community but at the same time, warns the white community what will happen if this help is not given. “And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who employ non violence direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolence efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security ion black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.”[1] It was in the benefit of the entire country, that enough of King’s contemporaries. Took him seriously and the needs of the black community which he outlined, in order that the black nationalists and their hate filled speech, did not gain more of a following then they did. Aspects of the Rogarian Arguments were important in this not coming to fruition.

This can also be applied to much less important issues as the ones expressed in Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. In any aspect of one’s life in which one possesses an opposing view and wishes to have this view heard, despite the foregone knowledge that the receiver will most likely disagree with the sender’s assertions, yet the attempt is made to increase the chances in which both may come to some sort of an agreement. In Dr. King’s letter, he attempts to connect to the mutual love for Jesus that both members of clergy have and as well as the encouragement that the white church act as Christians or Christ-like as is the true meaning of the word. This is done, not by preaching to the white clergy, despite the fact that Dr. King was a preacher. He knows that a sermon about the wrongness of their actions will result in the receivers of the letter to put up walls of protection as is the case whenever anyone preaches directly to somebody about the immorality of their actions.                Dr. King continues to explore the common ground, or what should be the common ground between a black member of the clergy and the white members of the clergy. It seems as though the two should be aligned in spreading the word of God and to save souls though the grace of Jesus and to follow his command of ‘love thy neighbor’. These are not only the teachings but the commandment of God as seen in the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. However, in this letter, King correctly sites the seemingly difficulty that he and other African American leaders have had in obtaining assistance from the white church. In this, King points out the counterproductive aspects of these two factions of the church, seemingly working against each other and the need for the two to come together. This is one of the main differences between Dr. King and other leaders of the African American community.                 As it was referenced in this letter, Dr. King has chosen to express his anger and resentment towards the present situation which African Americans are faced with in American society through prayer, civil disobedience and turning the other cheek. Dr. King does not let the members of the white community and also the white church and its clergy off the hook by their inactivity and apathy towards the plight of the African American Christian but he is not disrespectful either. These tactics were embraced by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party and both Dr. King and the large majority of the white community, were appealed and resistant towards anything that was said or would ever be said. Malcolm X spoke only to black people whereas Dr. King spoke to both those who agreed with him and those that did not in the attempt to have his point of view understood.  When people are being threatened and called derogatory terms, regardless of their color, the message of the sender is usually lost in the translation. Dr. King recognized this and as a result, his Letter From Birmingham Jail as well as his life in general, was more widely accepted than any other contemporary who had many of the same aims.

Dr. King seeks to avoid this as he knows that he will get a more favorable response if he applies the Rogarian Method, either knowingly or unknowingly, to the rightness of his cause and the cause of millions of African Americans across the country. As is the case in one’s own personal letter in which the author wishes to apply the Rogarian Method, despite the strong difference of opinions, it is important to include in the letter, usually at the end, a compliment of some sort in order to offset any possible hurt or angry feelings.  This is not done in an attempt to apologize for the content of the aforementioned letter but to leave the receiver with an attempt at a favorable response of the sender. Dr. King did this in the latter half of the letter and then at the close. “I am thankful, however, that some of out white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality…. Others have marched with us down the nameless streets of the South.”(Commanger, 1969 pg. 99) Also, at the close of his letter in what some may have seen as condescending but which appears to be a genuine concern for the health and well being of those who criticized him in which this letter was a result of, Dr. King ends by saying: “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” (Commanger, 1969 pg. 99) In this respect, Dr. King never did forget the teachings of Jesus to love thy neighbor, despite the actions of those who should be on the side of justice and the teachings of Jesus, but who actually end up the foes of Dr. King and his attempt to bring equal treatment under the law for every African American as well as every minority in America.

This strong resolve would again be witnessed on the grand stage in August of 1963, when, what many historians believe to be King’s defining moment, his I Have a Dream Speech was spoken to more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  King stated: “But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice…We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” (www.americanrhetoric.com) King would end the speech and receive the greatest applause in his career when he stated: “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (www.americanrhetoric.com) It would be these words which would help millions of oppressed people, as well as those who wanted to join in the fight against racial prejudice for decades to come.

The next six years would see a great deal of change and progress in the Civil Rights movement. In 1964 and 1965, the most important change to occur within the African American community since the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights acts of those years, which reaffirmed the Supreme Courts decision against racial segregation, as well as the fact that individuals could not be discriminated against because of their color, was passed. The passage of these most important acts was due largely, to Martin Luther King and the support that he was able to muster and unite under one single cause: racial equality under the law and perhaps also in the minds of every American. However, this exponential rise in the rights which African Americans were receiving under the leadership of Martin Luther King, ended on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

In late March, 1968, King went to Memphis to speak on support of the black sanitary public workers who were on strike for the securing of better wages as well as the equal treatment as their white counterparts.  On April 3, 1968, a day before King was to be assassinated, he spoke at Mason Temple Church of God and gave his famous Mountaintop speech in which he could sense that his days “ doing God’s work, was near its end.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain! And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!”(King, 2003)

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The next day, while standing outside on the balcony of his hotel, Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead. Once news of the assassination spread around the country, riots in more than sixty US cities began. Five days later, the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr began with more than 300,000 people in attendance. The civil rights movement would continue but not with the same type of leadership which commanded such attention and inspiration from millions of individuals.

The life of Martin Luther King Jr is one in which his popularity has increased exponentially since his death. In a recent poll, 94% of Americans polled, stated that they had a favorable opinion of the man. (USA Today, 2006 pg. D1) He was able to gather the power and influence of the masses towards a single goal: racial equality and the end to segregation. On the anniversary of his death, people still ask the question: “Has King’s dream come to fruition?” To a large degree, it has. However, when voluntary segregation among the masses occurs on a daily and wide basis and people are still divided by race and treated unfairly because of that race, then his dream has not yet come to fruition. There have been others leaders in the African American and Civil Rights movement who have tried to duplicate the success and inspiration that Martin Luther King brought to the struggle for racial equality. It is very unlikely that this will ever happen. The African American community still has had trouble, since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr to find a formidable leader who can start to fill the shoes of King. They are some big shoes to fill.

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WORKS CITED

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Abernathy, R. (1989) And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography Scribners: . New York: Harper ; Row

Commanger, H. S. (1969) Documents of American History. Vol. 2 New York: Century Press

Garrow, D. (1981) The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Books

Scott-King, C (1972) My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. New York,

King, M. (1994)  Letter From a Birmingham Jail.  New York: Harper Collins Johnson, Mary.

Jackson, T.F. ( 2006) From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,

Martin Luther King ; The Civil Rights Movement.  Boston: PBS Productions 2003

USA Today. Martin Luther King Jr. USA Today  January 15, 2005

MLK’s  I Have a Dream Speech http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

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