Upon Martin Luther King Jr.’s imprisonment in Birmingham, eight white Alabama ministers published a statement arguing that King did not belong in Birmingham and that the battle to end racial segregation belonged solely in the courtrooms. These ministers considered King’s actions “unwise and untimely.” Four days after this statement, King responded with his legendary open letter Letter From Birmingham Jail. King’s longest letter argues several issues, though he focuses on a few key issues more than others. His main arguments concern his presence in Birmingham, his arguments for nonviolent civil disobedience, and just versus unjust laws.
One of the first points King explains is his presence in Birmingham. King points out his connection with the SCLC and its affiliation with organizations across the South, including Birmingham. He is not an outsider; as an American, he has a personal stake in whatever happens to his fellow countrymen. He then reminds us that he was asked to be there, and beyond that, he had a moral obligation to be there. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Hence, he had to come and try to stop the gross injustices occurring in Birmingham. King then uses a series of biblical analogies to justify his presence in Birmingham further. He first refers to eighth-century prophets who left their villages to speak God’s word.
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He also speaks of Paul and how he carried the Gospel to all of the Greco-Roman worlds. By using these analogies, King strengthens his case by establishing similarities between it and previous, acceptable cases of moral acts. King appeals to the vast majority of Americans’ emotional connection towards the Bible and its stories and increases respect for King’s cause. King also gives the audience a feeling of the grandeur of injustice by indirectly comparing himself to Jesus and his apostles. By referencing moral authorities in his arguments, King does present a bit of a contradiction. Interestingly, he feels the need to invoke authority to incite others to go against authority.
King then brings up his arguments for nonviolent civil disobedience. He points out that there have been no definitive victories for civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. This nonviolent pressure is only put into action after all other efforts at negotiation have failed. These actions are necessary because a privileged group is unlikely to relinquish their privileges on their own accord; they need to be pushed to see the immorality of their acts. These groups need to be pushed to negotiate. Kings says that “the purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” King bolsters his argument for civil disobedience with several examples. King references Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who lived to a higher moral law and refused to compromise to lower standards, even if the consequences included death.
They were endangered because of their unwavering faith and adherence to the truth, much like King. He also references the Boston Tea Party as one huge, nationalistic act of civil disobedience. One of King’s most important arguments in this letter is his distinction between just and unjust laws and the subsequent adherence each one requires. King references St. Thomas Aquinas by saying that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law…any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Hence, segregation is unjust because it “distort[s] the soul and damages the personality…[by giving] the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” By degrading the human soul so deeply, laws such as segregation cannot be. King argues that since one has a legal and moral responsibility to obey and respect just laws, one must also have the same responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
King argues that “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for the law.” King is saying that disobeying unjust laws in an attempt to alert the community of their lack of morality and fairness is truly showing the highest respect for the law by seeking to purify it. The attempt to thwart an unjust law is actually an effort to restore natural law and God’s moral order to the body of law as a whole, making the action a just one. This argument does seem to justify actions taken by groups such as the Black Panthers and other pro-violence civil rights groups. King addresses these claims by adeptly using analogy once again. Most strongly, King argues that this is similar to condemning Jesus. King says that following that logic, Jesus’ “unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion.”