By Lauren Munroe
While incarcerated in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a powerful letter titled, Letter from A Birmingham Jail (1963) in response to a group of eight clergymen that submitted a letter to a local Alabama newspaper in regards to sending a message out to the public about upholding Law and Order and Common Sense (1963)—an obvious reference to King’s Civil Rights movement, in hopes to also refute King’s message of what moral law is. The clergymen state that perhaps the best way to handle injustice is to allow individual courts to handle all unique levels of injustice and when a verdict by the court is met, for all citizens (White Americans and Black Americans) to accept and adhere to the final decision. But what happens when those who are in positions of power negate what is morally right and instead incorporate prejudices, racism and other types of inequality within their “verdict?” Should the public then, remain silent? And how is the clergymen’s appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense following any proper “Law and Order” and or “Common Sense” when the very fabric of their letter as well as the racist and or prejudiced beliefs of Alabama and the rest of the country go against the basic principles of the United States constitution and moral law?
King (within his own letter) was desiring moral law, justice and equality for all Americans by reminding those who possessed state and government power about the importance of following the constitution and moral law through the application of strong, moral and philosophical arguments. Dr. King [P. 1 – P. 5] uses ethos to connect with the emotions of the clergymen, so they would lower their defenses and listen to his message of peace. King then states his reason for being qualified to discuss such a heavy political and ethical topic by listing his credentials such as being not only college educated, but also being a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
King does a fantastic job by incorporating history into his argument for justice by reminding the clergymen of those who came centuries before them who stood for justice and equality and would not rest until the message spreads to everyone. Men such as Apostle Paul, who roamed the cities far and wide to spread the message of peace and understanding, which are the teachings of Jesus Christ. King intelligently maneuvers his letter about spreading justice to Atlanta and other states around America as well as to the deep southern states, especially Alabama. The state of Alabama is highly known for harboring several hate groups that practice horrid acts of terrorism against fellow Americans because of the color of their skin and racial and ethnic background. King also uses his philosophical method of logos to explain to the clergymen about how he and his fellow organizational members determine whether a particular state is truly affected by racism, violence, and injustice by gathering facts, making negotiations (this letter, for example) and practices self-purification and direct action to one day help end injustice, violence and racism.
When King and his supporters finally spoke with the officials of Alabama in order to reverse sanctions placed on African Americans in regards to voting, housing and employment, King and his followers soon realized that the officials refused to meet their goals for justice and equality for people of color. King then created a boycott that instructed people of color in not participating in an economy that not only rejects Americans of color but also bars Americans of color from being protected under the constitution as well as moral law, yet still wants Americans of color to support White, American-owned businesses. King further explains that his methods of non-violence were not only perfect in order to gain the attention of a nation that repeatedly refused to accept everyone as equal, but this type of blow to the American economy would make America realize just how powerful the voice of Americans of color truly was.
King was not a man that was afraid to stir up proper tension if it meant full equality and justice for everyone. King even mentions within his letter the Greek philosopher, Socrates, as being a man who was also passionate about waking up the minds of those who were mentally bound to myths and the absurd, instead of questioning and challenging the world around them and not just accepting twisted laws, public and or private traditions and religions that are passed down from generation to generation. Eventually, one must take full moral responsibility and question why they believe what they believe, again, not because of what is said or given to them that is being passed on as fact, when in actuality, what is not.
King stressed the importance of desegregation. If America was to be a country where all men, women, and children were created equal, then America must create a society that is truly accepting of all races, ethnicities and religions. King made it known that to keep violently opposing desegregation would work against the nation and not for it. King also stressed the frustration that parents of color face everyday when they have to explain to their innocent, impressionable children about the horrors of racism and violence. King continues his letter by mentioning the plethora of degrading and tiresome racial insults that people of color face as well as the steps that both old and young people of color must learn in order to survive (instead of thrive) within American society. People of color were also refused entry at many restaurants, entertainment venues, and business establishments because of segregation. And if people of color don’t obey these unjust, far from moral as well as unethical laws, then their lives would be in danger.
People of color still suffer through the onslaught of racial epithets and opinions both obvious and subtle on a daily basis. King smoothly inserts the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas [Pg. 1 & Pg. 4], as well as lists the number of other heroes of human history, whether they were Christians who suffered the grizzly deaths of drawing and quartering, being fed to lions and other atrocities because they would not submit to a lesser, inhumane law but to a higher, ethical and moral law—a natural law that protects every human being. King is on point when he also highlights the horrendous acts of Adolph Hitler and how the laws under the Third Reich were deemed “lawful” even though these unjust, unmoral and unethical laws allowed free reign for the most disgusting and heinous acts to be done to human beings.
King knew that his message would never reach the hearts of those within many different hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan along with their die-hard sympathizers. King did hope to reach the white Americans that refused to be infected by the lure of racist rhetoric and felt uneasy about its gross popularity because they possessed a knowledge of natural law. King hoped his message would transform the hearts, minds and souls of these white Americans, which would create change within society, as well as state and government sectors.
King also incorporates the appeal of logic into his letter by addressing Americans that misinterpret the Christian meaning of time and patience. King explains that when injustices occur, there is no time to allow bad things to happen in hopes that they will cease on their own; you must possess the logic and courage to stop it. King knew that non-violence and non-racist methods would push the movement in a positive direction that all Americans could embrace. The non-violence methods of Gandhi, the Muslim practice of not seeing race or color but the human being themselves, and freedom fighters such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith and others [Pg. 2 & Pg. 7], blended with King’s philosophies, would make a powerful changes around the world.
Even though many times King was let down by other Christian ministers and Jewish Rabbis, (probably out of fear of retaliation and not truly understanding King’s cause at the time), he never gave up. King also mentions that the Black man, woman and child were in America long before America came to be the superpower of the world.
Also, many different races of people that immigrated to the United States helped create the superpower that is America today, but it is unfortunate that there is a blatant refusal among many within this nation (due to racist beliefs and or ignorance) to accept the factual knowledge that the labor of many black slaves over the course of America’s history helped America become an economic superpower; black slaves toiling in fields of cotton, tobacco, cane and many other types of agriculture as well as industrial, corporate and entrepreneur labors (such as Black Wall Street) after reconstruction. This unpaid work generated masses of wealth for the slave owners, their immediate and extended families as well as future generations, but the black slaves, their children and immediate and extended families and their future generations received nothing. King closes his letter with a logical challenge to the clergymen by saying if what he is saying is not of fact, then to forgive him. However, King knows that the letter he wrote is completely factual and any person can study the statistics of the American nation to verify his message within his passionate letter. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man ahead of his time.
“Statement by Alabama Clergymen – 12 April 1963”. Stanford University, 19 Dec. 2000. Web. 03 Dec. 2016. King, Jr., Martin L.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail. – 16 April 1963”. Ed. Ali B. Ali-Dinar. African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.