1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham for his participation in the demonstrations against segregation. While imprisoned, King took the time to respond to the statement against non-violent protests contained in the article "A Call for Unity." In his response from the Birmingham jail, King explains the reasons behind his actions, as well as the imminent social threat that looms over the South. In "The Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King explains his course of action, the events that have led up to it, and the consequences of inaction.
King was jailed for his participation in Birmingham demonstrations that had been brought on by the segregation between the Black minority and the White majority. King states that the most effective course of action against this injustice is civil disobedience. King does not advocate civil disobedience without cause, rather presents the steps necessary for the social uprising against injustice. King argues that in order for this civil uprising to be just, an analysis of the situation must be taken into consideration.
As a result of King trying to find a common ground between those that have become complacent with their position and situation, and those that advocate violence, King's actions have erroneously been mistaken as extremist. Citing both religious and historical figures, King argues that Jesus was an extremist for love, Amos an extremist for justice, and Paul an extremist for the Christian Gospel, and that each man was willing to sacrifice their life and liberty for what they believed. He also cites John Bunyan who was willing to sacrifice his freedom for peace of mind, Lincoln who argued that the nation could not be half-slave and half-free, and Jefferson who in the Declaration of Independence wrote that all men were created equal.
King chose to go down to Birmingham because he felt that his presence and influence there would be the most effective. According to King, Birmingham was the most segregated city in the United States at the time and had the highest occurrence of unjust treatment of Blacks in the court system, the highest amount of unsolved bombings of homes and churches targeting Blacks, and had an "ugly record of brutality." The second step in moving towards civil disobedience is negotiations. King cites the failed agreement between Blacks and local merchants an instigating factor. The Black community had agreed to cease demonstrations against these merchants if they were to remove discriminating signs from their shop windows. Though the agreement was briefly honored, merchants reneging on their agreement are a cause for direct action. In order for the individual to be prepared for direct action, they must first endure self-purification; by attending and organizing a series of workshops on non-violence, the individual is prepared to suffer the consequences of their actions and explore the limits to which they are willing to go. The final step in inciting civil disobedience is direct action. King argues that direct action is not meant to destroy relations, nor break the law, rather to create tension that would lead to negotiation. The direct action chosen was a boycott against discriminating merchants with the hopes of creating an economic disturbance.
The actions undertaken by King were deemed "unwise and untimely," yet it can also be argued that any revolution or revolt may be deemed "unwise and untimely" by those who are in power. King responds by stating that demonstrations were postponed time and again because they did not want to destroy the community, rather they wanted to aid it. He continues to defend his timing by stating that they "must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right." Those that bide their time lose opportunities to act and King could no longer postpone the call for direct action.
Furthermore, civil disobedience has been used to combat just and unjust laws in the past. Though King argues that man has a legal and moral responsibility to obey just laws, he also maintains a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Quoting St. Augustine, "an unjust law is no law at all," King explicates the difference between just and unjust laws. King contends that just laws comply with moral law, as well as, the law of God, whereas unjust laws are "out of harmony with moral law." Unjust laws are laws created by humans that are not "rooted" in eternal or natural law. Furthermore, any law that degrades human personality is to be considered unjust. Because segregation relegates an individual to an object, rather than a person, and distorts the soul and "damages personality," it is an unjust law. King urges the adherence to the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 (Brown v. The Board of Education) and urges that similar ordinances be initiated toward all aspects of the community, and for ordinances that support segregation to be rejected. Moreover, King points out that unjust laws are manipulated by the majority group who compels the minority to obey them, yet do not follow the law themselves. The disparity between the majority and minority if further emphasized by the unjust application of just laws.
King's criticism of the church is not without merit. As a pillar of the community, the church is highly influential in forming social bonds within the community, as well as, establishing moral precedent. As a member of the clergy, King has noted that many churches in Birmingham have misunderstood the freedom movement and that they have misrepresented the leaders of the movement. He also admonishes the church's attitude towards segregation in which they contend that they should not get involved because the issue is a social matter and not religious. Furthermore, the church has encouraged its worshippers to adhere to the law, and not to question the moral turpitude of the unjust laws currently in place. Though King respects the church, he often wonders if the beauty of the church building has been marred by fear driven hypocrisy. The church is so preoccupied with the stigma of non-conformism that they have forgotten that the church was built upon non-conformism. The church was once proud to suffer for what they believed, and many submitted to martyrdom rather than to deny their beliefs. The church has, in the past, been able to bring about the end of infanticide and gladiatorial contests yet are fearful to take action against segregation. It is a shame that the church finds consolation through inaction as they continue to quietly sanction the unjust laws of the South. King is correct in stating that if the church does not become active within the community and question the morality of separatist issues, they are at risk of becoming nothing more than a social club. "Human progress, [after all]…comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God."
It was through the persistence and perseverance of civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. that the South began to take steps towards integration. Much like the martyrs who died for their religious beliefs, King, too, gave up his life for the belief that all men were equal and thus should be treated equally. Through continued efforts within the community and nation, King's death was not in vain and many would pick up where he left off, ensuring that men, women, and children of all social statuses and race would be treated equally, fairly, and justly.
Martin Luther King, Jr. jailed for his participation in the Birmingham demonstrations
Letter from Birmingham Jail written April 16, 1963 in response to "A Call for Unity"
II. Civil Disobedience
Analysis of Situation-Why Birmingham?
High level of segregation, highest in U.S.
Unjust treatment of Blacks in courts
High number of unsolved bombings of homes and churches