Alabama in the early 1960’s was indeed a state ‘sweltering with the heat of injustice’ as MLK himself said in the March on Washintgon some years after being incarcerated in Birmingham Jail. His letter from the same jail is full of impassioned appeals for non violence against the arbitrary and terrible treatment meted out to those protestors who were chiefly demonstrating for equal civil rights with whites. The author’s thesis is that justice should be there for all especially for negroes who have been sidelined for centuries.
King says; “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter”. It is indeed a travesty of justice that the United States, which was supposedly so advanced in dismantling colonial empires took so long to implement equal rights in its own Southern states.
King takes his fellow clergymen to task in the opening statement of the letter where they had criticised his actions as ‘unwise and untimely’ but he is scathing at the lack of progress made towards the real estabalishment of civil rights in the states of Alabama, Mississippi and other reactionary Deep South states. Naturally King was exasperated at the slow progress being made and decided to change tack and effect a more direct approach to the problem, one which obviously brought much more violence from the racists of the White South.
Martin Luther King also makes an impassioned appeal to the fellow white citizens of good reason and those who perhaps had a sense of humanity in them. He tells them; “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice”.
This is indeed a powerful statement that castigates the flagrant ignorance of the white community with regards to the problems being faced by the negroes. King is explicit in his criticism where he tells the whites that it was even an issue just to remove some humiliating racial signs and as a matter of fact, those who were dawdling and twiddling their thumbs in Washington were actually hindering the cause of the non violent movement which was at least getting somewhere with its sit-ins, non violent demonstrations and voter registration drives.
King is also highly critical of the attitude taken by the Birmingham police force which is, to say the least pathologically violent in several ways. He reserves special disdain for the awful figure of Bull Connor, the notorious police chief who smashes and bulldozes his way through the demonstraters and makes mass arrest for no reason. This theme will obviously be revisited in Selma and Montgomery later but Birmingham was the real crux of the whole non violent movement.
Why was the letter necessary?
In his ‘Letter from Birmingham jail’, Martin Luther King appealed to the intrinsic emotions of the good natured person who should understand that what was being done to negroes in the South was abominable and unjust. The audience he chooses are his fellow pastors and the white community in the Southern cities. He advances his argument with coherent logic and builds his letter slowly but surely to a climax. Although slavery had been abolished after the Civil war, institutional racism was still the order of the day in the South especially in the deep South with even senators such as Jim Eastland (D-MS) and Olin Johnston (D-SC) spouting regular segregationist comments and imbueing the racists among them with courage to keep ‘the nigra’ in his place. King could no longer tolerate the arbitrary injustice against negroes with torchings of private property, lynchings and the denial of the right to vote which was the order of the day in the Deep South.
King is consistent in his premise that according to the Constitution, ‘all men were created equal’ and this phrase was blatantly ignored by administrators and civic leaders in the Southern states. He makes his case skilfully, arguing that the negroe is no less than a white man in any respect and the fact that his rights are consistently being denied is an awful situation.
He says; “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
The attitude of the white civic leaders is truly hard to understand as King really hits the nail on the head here. It is impossible to continue engaging in petty dialogue when nothing ever is concluded and rightly, King insisted that peaceful non violent demonstrations were the solution to something being finally done. The letter hopes to achieve recognition from peaceful and just whites for the plight of the negroe people in the South.
The letter was indeed a seminal turning point in negroe-white relations in the deep South. It brought about recognition from the Northern liberals who finally realised that they needed to start going down to the states where injustice was being perpetrated on a regular and arbitrary basis. This brought about other stages of massive resistance in the South of course which culminated in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi where three young men were murdered in Philadelphia, Neshoba County and where the first convictions were finally brought against whites for civil rights murders.
King’s letter is a seminal document which should be read and re-read by anyone who has even the merest glimmer of interest in US history. It is a life-affirming statement of the power of reason and humanity against the forces of injustice and oppression. It can be seen as a prelude to the great speech which the pastor made in the March on Washington where he also revisits the themes of brotherhood and compassion between fellow men.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty”, concludes the letter.
“Free at last...free at last....Thank God Almighty...We are free at last”. This concludes that great speech which saw its beginnings in the inner recesses of the Birmingham jail. The purpose of the letter is to raise conscioussness on the deplorable state of the negroe in the South and with this letter, King certainly achieves this.
King ML; Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html