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Letter from Birmingham Jail


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I love to teach anything by Dr. King as his words and actions go far beyond race. They are a blueprint for relationships and community.

Published in: Education, News & Politics

Letter from Birmingham Jail

  1. 1. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the influences on his thought Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 1
  2. 2.  Dr. King wrote the Letter From Birmingham Jail while he was in solitary confinement after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King was responding to a public letter from 8 local Birmingham clergymen who felt that Dr. King was hasty and radical in his approach. Dr. King was arrested on Good Friday, April 12 and released on April 20th. He was denied a phone call to his wife who was recovering from childbirth—their 4th child. The Kennedy administration learned of this—the phone call was permitted and eventually bail was raised for Dr. King‟s release. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 2
  3. 3.  In April 1963 King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined with Birmingham, Alabama‟s existing local movement, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, in a massive direct action campaign to attack the city‟s segregation system by putting pressure on Birmingham‟s merchants during the Easter season, the second biggest shopping season of the year. As ACMHR founder Fred Shuttlesworth stated in the group‟s „„Birmingham Manifesto,‟‟ the campaign was „„a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive.‟‟ (ACMHR, 3 April 1963). Since Dr. King was also a minister, he was expected to preach in Atlanta as it was Easter weekend. But he chose to do the protest as the timing felt right to him. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 3
  4. 4.  Jim Crow Laws in the South were legal means to oppress Blacks. Segregation was law. Blacks used different bathrooms, sat on different park benches, drank from different fountains, washed their clothes in different Laundromats, gave up seats for white people on the bus, and always sat behind whites in public transportation. From the 1880s into the 1960s, a majority of American states enforced segregation through "Jim Crow" laws (so called after a black character in minstrel shows). From Delaware to California, and from North Dakota to Texas, many states (and cities, too) could impose legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race. The most common types of laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated. Whites who did not obey these laws were also prosecuted by state officials. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 4
  5. 5.  Pool and Billiard Rooms : It shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Toilet Facilities, Male: Every employer of white or Negro males shall provide for such white or Negro males reasonably accessible and separate toilet facilities. Nurses: No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed. Buses: All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races. Laws such as these were standard, not only in the South, but in states like Delaware, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Maryland. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 5
  6. 6.  Much of what we understand as non-violent protest emerged from Henry David Thoreau‟s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” posthumously titled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. Civil Disobedience is a form of resistance in which protesters deliberately violate a law. Classically, they violate the law they are protesting, such as segregation or draft laws, but sometimes they violate other laws which they find unobjectionable, such as trespassing or traffic laws, simply to draw attention to the larger issues of their objections. The purpose of civil disobedience can be to publicize an unjust law or a just cause, to appeal to the conscience of the public, to force negotiations with recalcitrant officials, to clog the machines (Thoreau’s phrase) with political prisoners, to get into court where one can challenge the constitutionality of a law, to exculpate oneself or to put an end to one’s personal complicity in the injustice which flows from an obedience to an unjust law. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 6
  7. 7. Henry David Thoreau deliberately did not pay a poll tax because he considered it to be unjust and exploitative. So he was thrown in prison for this offense. Much of his anger against these governmental interferences became the basis of his essay. He saw the constitution as the problem, not the solution. Legal channels took too long—a man was born to live, not to lobby. His individualism gave him another answer; individuals were sovereign, especially in a democracy. The government only holds its power by delegation from free individuals. Any individual may elect to stand apart from the domains of the law. Thoreau also protested the Mexican War. Many Vietnam protestors in the 60s found his ideas to be relevant to their own political concerns. Many protestors against the Vietnam and Iraqi Wars refused to pay taxes—they reasoned that their money was funding unjust wars. One of Thoreau‟s most quoted lines comes from this essay: “When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life”, why should I be in haste to give it my money?” Gandhi himself used this logic in his forms of protesting against the English occupying force by refusing to purchase British goods. Gandhi understood, as did Dr. King, that non-violent protest works when the economic base of the oppressor comes under threat. The original idea of the current Tea Party was to protest “taxation without representation” as they were enraged by the bailout of Wall Street. However, the Tea Party has now been appropriated by the Republican extremists, even though the majority of that political party ironically supported the bailout and refused to recognize the wishes of their constituents. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 7
  8. 8.  When he lived in South Africa, Gandhi and other Indians organized a series of passive resistant tactics to protest laws. They refused to get IDS, they burned the ones they had, they refused to work in the diamond mines—these acts unconvinced the government because working in the mines was considered to be lowly work that whites didn‟t perform and blacks (who were seen as even lower) could not fill the ranks and still complete the other socially undesirable jobs of the South African economy. These campaigns lasted 7 years. Gandhi and a score of others were beaten and jailed repeatedly for their protests. It was here that Gandhi began his theory of Satyagraha— literally meaning soul force, love force. It became the basis of his non- violent movement. The word Sat means truth in Hindi: Agraha means firmness. He named the movement Satyagraha, realizing that he needed a term to define his ideal of what he had first called in English, passive resistance. Later he discarded that term because nonviolence is anything but passive; “it calls for intense activity.”(125) He found the English term to be narrowly construed as though it “were the weapon of the weak.”(125) Satyagraha is also called the devotion to truth. (Quotes taken from The Gandhi Reader.) Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 8
  9. 9.  In 1920, Gandhi began a series of demonstrations and protests against the India. He came up with two more terms: Hind swarj (home rule—see pgs. 11 to 13) and ahimsa: refusal to hurt any living being (see “The Creed of Non- Violence”, pgs. 95 to 122). Ahimsa included vegetarianism, refusal to harm our enemies and maintaining our humanity in all kinds of situations. Consider this definition from the ATP Nonviolence Trainer’s Manual: Ahimsa --- refusal to inflict injury on others. A) Ahimsa is dictated by our commitment to communication and to sharing of our pieces of the truth. Violence shuts off channels of communication. B) The concept of ahimsa appears in most major religions, which suggests that while it may not be practiced by most people, it is respected as an ideal. (Jesus: turn the other cheek.) C) Ahimsa is an expression of our concern that our own and others humanity be manifested and respected. D) We must learn to genuinely love our opponents in order to practice ahimsa. From 1922 to 1924, Gandhi was held in prison for sedition. (Gandhi spent over 2300 days in jail throughout his lifetime—approximently 5 years.) Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 9
  10. 10.  Like Gandhi, King believed that one had to find love for all people, even his enemies. He had to purge his mind of hate. He relied on his Christian faith ,and his belief in the truth of his mission to fulfill his purification. He made no secret that Gandhi‟s teachings and actions for libertation were his model for the fundamentals of demanding equal rights for Blacks in the United States. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 10
  11. 11.  King and Non-Violence: He says that he is in Birmingham, Alabama because injustice is here. He outlines his campaign in four basic steps:1. collection of information to see if injustice exists2. negotiation with the oppressor3. self-purification4. direct actionThis is the model he uses to discuss his ideas in the letter. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 11
  12. 12. Direct action: Sit-ins, marches—these lead to negotiations because they attract attention, even if it results in imprisonment. These actions formed the basis of civil disobedience for Dr. King. If the actions are peaceful and non-violent, they will eventually cause the oppressor to negotiate. Here he echoes Gandhi in his approach to non-violence. King also writes that he knows “through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (320) He chooses a non- violence method to demand. Yet he is on the same wavelength as Malcolm X who writes: “How can you thank a man for giving you what is yours? How can you thank a man for giving only part of what is yours?” Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 12
  13. 13.  Just vs. Unjust Law: The 8 clergymen who wrote him were concerned about his choice to break laws. King worked with the ideas of just and unjust law from the middle ages. He quotes St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” A just law is man-made; it concurs with moral law and the law of God. A just law uplifts the human personality; it edifies him. For his theory of unjust law King also looks to St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote extensively on natural and just law during the middle ages. Specifically, King writes that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”(321) It degrades the human personality. Jim Crow laws give the segregator “a false sense of superiority”. (321) By quoting Martin Buber, King states that segregation “ substitutes an “I-it”relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” (321) So to King, an unjust law is no law at all. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 13
  14. 14.  Yet King still insists that civil disobedience must be done with love and humanity. Here again, he shows the influence of Gandhi when he writes: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty….I submit that an individual who breaks a law that…is unjust is…expressing the highest regard for law. (323) Consider Gandhi‟s views on Ahisma: turning the other cheek, maintaining one‟s humanity and genuinely loving their neighbor. King insisted that his followers did the same. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 14
  15. 15.  King expressed disappointment in the white moderates who did not support him in his struggle. He accuses them of preferring “ order than to justice”(322) When they say “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”.(322) He claims that they prefer a negative peace, a community that is orderly externally, but repressed and controlled by injustice, seething at their inequality. King defines a positive peace as a demonstration of the “presence of justice in the community”—in other words, people who conduct an orderly community out of respect for themselves and each other. They feel uplifted by the laws in their society. Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 15
  16. 16.  If one wants to understand how Dr. King worked for civil rights, the Letter From Birmingham Jail is crucial. It must be noted that there were other schools of thought: Malcolm X was the spokesman for the Nation of Islam—he was often accused of advocating violence. He never committed any violent act when he was with the Nation of Islam or afterwards, but he also noted that if someone got violent with him, he was going to react the same. His views changed after he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and experienced what many call “true Islam.” We cannot know how deeply the change would have manifested as Malcolm X was assassinated within a year of returning from Mecca. Stokley Carmichael invented the term Black Power. He wanted Blacks to feel empowered by who they were, by their African heritage and by the culture they represent in America. Dr. King had no problem with his ideas, but found the term “Black Power” as suggestive for violence, so he broke off from working with Stokley Carmichael without harsh feelings. Dr. King‟s death broke Stokley‟s heart, among with thousands of activists. Stokley called the subsequent riots as an answer to white society—people were angry at the death of their leader. Robert Kennedy openly admired him. J. Edgar Hoover hated him, and made no secret of his animosity. Dr. King received death threats as a matter of course, and he expected that he would not live a long life. After his death, Coretta Scott King noted that Dr. King saw our society as “sick”; he felt called to heal the disease of racism and man‟s inhumanity against each other.(All quotes from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail have been taken from Temple University‟s Intellectual Heritage 52, fourth edition. I used this text when I taught IH. The pagination for the PDF is obviously different.) Bertolino--Mosaic 2-Power Unit 16