"The Letter From Birmingham Jail": How Do You Read It?
Introduction Means To Impress
One can read Martin Luther King's letter "The Negro is Your Brother" simply as a letter. But I would recommend my audience to broaden its perspective to get a larger and clearer picture of King's ideas. King brilliantly invites readers’ attention to the core of his essay in its beginning sentences. The introduction contains a strong thesis lays the groundwork for the development of the subsequent paragraphs. He emphasizes his reason for coming to the city. The letter speaks of King’s concern over the civil rights of the blacks in America. The universal truth of cause and effect is implied in the context of writing this letter. King wrote this letter with a particular intention. His primary objective was to denounce the “outside agitator” idea. He successfully prepares the ground for this argument in the first three paragraphs of his essay.
“Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” (King)
The Divine Mission
The letter says that “several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary” (King). King convinces the clergymen that he is being entrusted with the mission of working for the society, and he has moved to the land. Now he is confined, and this condition he attributes to the unjust act of the ruling power. He justifies his response by stating that he cannot sit idle or remain blind to the injustice happening to his fellow citizens.
King justifies his coming to Birmingham pointing to several examples from the history and scriptures with intent to refute the view "outsiders coming in." He likens himself to the prophets of the eighth century B.C and the Apostle Paul who left their villages to carry out their divine mission. He also points out that Jesus Christ himself traveled across the Greco Roman world to preach the gospel. King, as he asserts, is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom” beyond his hometown Atlanta.
Wherever Injustice, I'm There
King wants to answer his critics, though in the beginning he says that replying to all criticism is not possible. He develops a thesis for his essay covering all essential aspects of the pertaining issue. King wrote this letter as a response to eight white clergymen who alleged that King did not give the new mayor a chance to change the situation. The clergymen, in their response named 'A Call for Unity' had claimed that the battle against racial discrimination should take place in courts, and not in the community. Also, they questioned the right of King to trouble the streets of Birmingham as he was an outsider. To answer this claim, King, in the letter, pointed out that all communities and states are interconnected. According to King, all people are being caught in ‘an inescapable network of mutuality’, and hence, if an issue affects one, it will affect all indirectly. He thus develops the main argument that one who lives inside the United States is not an outsider.
At the beginning itself, he alludes to Birmingham’s notorious racial divide saying “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” It gives the clear impression that in Birmingham the blacks faced a considerable degree of discrimination. The following sentence also reaffirms the very idea; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Unjust Law Is Not to Obey
King responds to the clergymen who complained that King created high amounts of tension and social unrest. He makes clear that the methods used were nonviolent. He expresses the belief that it was necessary to create tension to make the wider society realize the kind of pressure faced by blacks all the time. Another point of the clergymen’s allegation was that the agitation was anti-law. Here, the opinion of King is that one does not have the responsibility to obey an unjust law. Instead, according to him, ‘one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’ (King).
King wants to say that his every act is intention oriented. Therefore, this "Letter from Birmingham" also intends a group of people, and they are none other than the clergymen. The reason behind writing the letter is to convince them why he has undertaken such movements. In the introduction itself, he refutes the criticism raised by the religious heads and his fellow clergymen. The letter argues that the religion neither initiated nor allowed others to fight the injustice. Eventually, King does not simply target a few of the clergymen but the entire Christianity for being neutral to the situation. It is not a criticism against the religion but a reminder of the culpable ignorance or negligence the church showed. King is to the point that the religion should understand the racial injustice or discrimination and react against it effectively. Since the church is his intended audience, indirectly he questions the responsibilities of the church. King strongly holds his view and answers his fellow clergymen who addressed his activities as "unwise and untimely."
“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas” (King).
Unrest But Nonviolent
Apart from this, King tells the clergymen (the intended audience) that if he and secretaries keep on answering the criticism placed on the table, then there would have been no time to involve in the activities planned. He also states that what they have contributed is just criticisms, and it is evident from his statement, “you deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham." What King could not tolerate is the comment made by the church on the police force in a positive sense without understanding the real miseries of the Negros.
King takes a challenge since he is criticized for his timely actions as ‘untimely’. Moreover, he conveys the message that he would take further ‘direct actions campaign’ which would be planned perfectly. Postponing things is something which he further condemns to justify his acts. According to him, keeping things for later or a process of waiting means ‘never.’ There are many shreds of evidence that he points out regarding the sufferings of the Negros. He proves his argument in different ways, initially by identifying the laws as ‘just and unjust’. Also, further substantiates his argument by borrowing the idea of St. Augustine who said in his philosophical thinking ‘an unjust law is no law at all’. Moreover, there are cases he tells that law is applied unjustly through its manipulation, maybe by utilizing the concept of logic.
In total, King’s contributions deserve high appraisal because he was an American priest, an activist, reformer and a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The introduction section of King’s letter is an excellent model indicating how to prepare the ground for an essay. King’s arguments are strong enough to convince his audience that his acts are peaceful and nonviolent.