Last updated: April 22, 2019
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Response for Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

The first two pages of Dr. King’s letter were extremely rational, almost too much so in the fact that they come across as very dispassionate and borderline cold. However in the paragraph that talks about the African American race waiting “more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given right,” the emotions begin to seep through. The vivid pictures drawn by King, the images of Negro children drowned “at whim,” the “hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill,” and “the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” are all gut-wrenching pictures of the oppression suffered by the Negro race.

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When Dr. King further talks about a six-year old daughter who is so excited because a new public amusement park has opened, then details her tears and sadness when she is told the park is closed to colored children, and when he is required to explain to a five year old son why “white people treat colored people so mean,” the passion and emotion spill through, and we are drawn inexorably into the letter.  From this point, King switches back to a very rational response to the clergy who are expressing “anxiety over our willingness to break laws.”  He acknowledges their concerns and agrees that it may seem a paradox that while the Negro race as a whole insist on others obeying the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 which outlaws segregation in public schools, they are now breaking other laws without a thought.  King’s response to their concern is that there are “two types of laws; just and unjust,” and further states that we all have a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.  Dr. King advocates breaking these unjust laws “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” which seems a little unrealistic in the grand scheme of things—at least the “lovingly” part. It is a statement that is solid in theory, but in reality has less practical application.

Dr. King states that the white moderate is possibly a greater stumbling block to Negro freedom than even the “Ku Klux Klanner” because they constantly advise the Negroes to “wait for a more convenient season.”  King felt that because these white moderates were so willing to do nothing and let nature take it’s course that they were perhaps a greater danger with their apathy than the KKK members were with their hatred.  King gently chastises the white ministers and clergy for advocating that he follow a less resistant path in his goal of freedom for all races, and lets them know that the churches need to rise up and meet the challenge and “come to the aid of justice.

The majority of Dr. King’s letter is very calm, very solidly stated, very well thought out. I felt that there were some instances where he should have, perhaps, stated his opinions and objectives a bit more strongly and with a little less gentle touch. The subject is, without doubt an emotional one, yet the only times we really feel the emotion coming through in the letter is when specific people or specific instances are related. Toward the end of the letter, King addresses the fact that the clergy “warmly commended the Birmingham police for keeping order and preventing violence,” yet wonders if that commendation would have been so wholehearted if these men had seen “the dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.”  He tells them of the inhumane treatment of the Negroes in the city jail; the old Negro women and young Negro girls who are pushed and cursed, and the old Negro men and young boys who were slapped and kicked.

In a final emotional appeal King talks about the courage of the Negro race, and how lonely and agonizing many of their lives have been.  He relates vividly the picture of the “old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses.”  The sentence that wrenches my own heart most profoundly is this: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream….”

I believe if Dr. King had not included the very personal parts of his letter, the references to real people and real situations, the heartbreak and loneliness of the Negro race, the letter would have, as a whole, been too sterile, and not emotional enough to provoke a response from the heart. Because he did include these passages, the absolute calmness of the remainder of the letter were more easily assimilated with the more emotional passages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

 

1.  King, Martin Luther, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963