Research on Martin Luther King, Jr. And “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail”
To me, Martin Luther King, Jr. is not an unfamiliar name. His famous speech “I’ve a dream” is partly selected as our English text in China. Although I know he is well known for the strong and affective words, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” still gave me a very deep impression. It is perfectly organized in a logical and thoughtful arrangement. On the other hand, the words are strong and full of real, impressive emotion.
To fully understand this letter, having a basic background of Martin Luther King and the social environment at that time is necessary. King was born into a rich middle-class family of Atlanta in the year 1929. His father and grandfather were both famous black ministers. King received a nice education, and graduated from Boston University as a Doctor of Ethnology. In the year 1955, King led the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, in a boycott against the buses, which treated black people unequally as the white people. The buses were desegregated in 1965. In the following years, King devoted himself to the fight for equal civil rights, and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In 1968, King was assassinated. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963. It was a “response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama”
(King 403) who thought King’s non-violence resistance was “unwise and untimely”(King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Casts of Thought: Writing In And Against Tradition. Eds. George Otte and Linda J. Palumbo New York: Macmillan1991, 403). At that time, the civil rights movement in the U.S. faced several problems and difficulties, and was slowing down. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” lit the whole movement up, and became a turning point.
After knowing the basic background, let us focus on the letter itself. At the beginning of the letter, (from paragraph 1 to paragraph 3) King successfully reverts his passive position as prisoner to a busy leader minister, who had little time to respond to criticism. In the first paragraph, he kept his polite tone, and made the statement in such a way that he was not forced to answer but willing to reply because he respected those clergymen’s good will and sincere. Then, in the following paragraphs, he answers the question:” Why is Martin Luther King is here in Birmingham?” In this section, the words “more basically”, “moreover” show a logical organization. He mentions his president position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to indicate his responsibility of the situation of Birmingham. Here, he emphasizes the invitation and organization ties to imply that he should be respected as a guest. In the coming paragraph, he compared himself as a minister with those Christian saints in the history to gain trust and more respect. Then he focuses on the duty of a human being and an American citizen, who should show more concern to those injustices no matter where they are. Here, he refutes the clergymen’s statement about “outsiders coming in” by saying:“ Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea”(King 404). By the end of the first section of the letter, King has perfectly got the trust and respect he deserved as a man, a minister, a civil rights leader, even a prisoner. We can see how easily and perfectly that King changed the person of writing from the single “I” to a plural form “we”, in order to emphasize he’s not alone. He gained a high respect and showed a strong support at the same time.
The careful and thoughtful structure is another main character of the letter. From paragraph 4 to paragraph 46, King refutes several statements mentioned in clergymen’s letter, and makes a strong and firm counterattack. The questions he answers include:
1) Why are the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham?
2) Why do we take direct actions, instead of negotiation first?
3) Why now?
4) Why should we show willingness to break laws?
5) The critic of white moderate.
6) Precipitate violence
7) Is our action extreme?
Among these influent and powerful answers, the words that talk about breaking laws show an excellent organization and combination of identify and example, cause and effect. In the paragraph 14, King connects the problem of breaking laws to the just laws and unjust laws. In the next paragraph, he defines the difference between just and unjust laws. Then he raises several examples to further explain his principle. Linking by words” let us consider a more concrete example”(King 408), he gives a vivid analogy. After that, he explains his idea from another aspect beginning with “let me give another explanation”(King 408). Next, he uses the format of “It is not…but…” to refute some deny or doubt. In the following two paragraphs, he raises a couple of positive (the Boston Tea Party) and negative (Nazi German) examples in history to support his idea. In this section, there is a clear and complete processes of arrangement, which can be illustrated like these: surface problem real problem identify examples explanations refutes deny positive/negative examples (hopes).
Besides the rigorous organization, we could not forget the powerful emotional words in the letter. It seems parallelism is King’s favorite writing style. He uses it times in different part of the letter to make a fluently increasing tone. But it is the one in paragraph 13th which is most strong and beautiful in this letter. He uses night “when” to fully express the sad situation of black people, in order to emphasize “…difficult to wait” (King 407). It is so strong and filled with emotion that my eyes get wet when the first time I read these. The second personalize (“you”) actually drag readers into African American’s sad situations. It forces reader to taste, to feel, and to experience what blacks went through. Neither the first person nor the third person can get as much sympathy as it gets. The readers are not just reading the letter; they follow King to climb a ladder of emotion. They become more and more sad and angry, when reaching the peak, they face the statement:” We can’t wait anymore!” Then, suddenly, all the sadness and anger finally find a way out. That’s how King reaches your heart. The same style also appears in his famous speech “I’ve a dream!”
Martin Luther King is well respected as a great civil rights leader. But, as an effective writer, there are so many things I should learn. For I’m not a native speaker, English articles are less impressive than Chinese. When I read the Black Cat, I even didn’t feel any horror about it. But “Letter from Birmingham
Jail” is totally different. I felt exited and read the whole letter without a break. It has such an emotional impact even on a foreigner; it’s not hard to imagine how powerful it is to black people in despair. These fantastic writing and speaking skills enabled Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand forward and fight for his black brothers and sisters to have an equal society and a brilliant future.
Paragraph 18: Just and unjust law
Paragraph 18th and 19th are not the most attractive paragraphs in this letter. But they play an important role in it. In these two paragraphs, King continues the discussion on just and unjust laws, and proclaims his idea about how to resist the unjust law peacefully and deliberately. These sentences become the practical direction of the non-violence campaign.
Paragraph 18th begins with the words “ Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application” (King 408). In order to prove his words, King used his own experience as a great example. As King said in this letter—“ …I have been arrested of a charge of parading without a permit” (King 408). There are several sources that recorded what had happened on May 7th 1963. In: "Time line on the life of MLK", there is such a statement: “During another demonstration King is arrested for a sit-in to protest segregation of eating facilities. While imprisoned King writes his ‘letter from a Birmingham jail’.” ("Time line on the life of MLK" www.members.aol.com/magoo0885/page4Actually, King was not
arrested for sit-in and eating facilities. As he said himself, he was arrested for parading without a permit.)
Another article in Time magazine on January 3, 1964 named “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Never Again Where He Was” seems have some more detailed description of the event. It says:
“At May 17th, 2,500 Negroes poured out of church, surged through the police lines and swarmed downtown. Connor furiously ordered the fire hoses turned on. Armed with clubs, cops beat their way into the crowds. An armored car menacingly bulldozed the milling throngs. Fire hoses swept them down the streets. In all, the Birmingham demonstrations resulted in the jailing of more than 3,300 Negroes, including King himself.”
(“Man of The Year”: “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Never Again Where He Was” Time 3 January 1964 www.time.com/time/special/moy/1963)
From these two records, it isn’t hard to tell why King uses his example to explain the difference between a just and unjust law. King wants to emphasize that a just law might become unjust. It depends on the situation and target in a great extent. In King’s example, the just law, which requires a permit for parade, becomes unjust when it actually hinder the progress of black people to seek for an equal civil rights. Here King raises an interesting idea of difference between just and unjust laws. According to his words, a just law, even it’s “the moral law or the law of God” (King 407), can be used as an unjust law, which “is out of Harmony with the moral law” (King 407). It seems King mean to confuse the boundary line of the just and unjust. From a certain point of view, this gloomy statement seems weakening his strong will. Is that true?
To answer this question, we need some basic idea about the words just and unjust. In “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” King has given the meaning of these two words. It says:” A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of Harmony with the moral law” (King 407). In the Oxford English Dictionary, Just, when it is used as an adjective, has 12 different meanings. The basic one is: “that does what is morally right, righteous. Just before (with) God or, simply, just: Righteous in the
sight of God; justified. Now chiefly as a Biblical archaism.” (The Oxford English Dictionary 638) The rest of the explanations are mainly about three terms:
1) “Consonant with the principles of moral right or of equity; righteous; equitable; fair. Of rewards, punishments, etc.” (OED 638)
2) “Having reasonable or adequate grounds; well founded.” (OED 638)
3) “Conformable to the standard, or to what is fitting or requisite; right in amount, proportion, aesthetic quality, etc.; proper; correct. “(OED 638)
Generally speaking, just have three aspects: right and moral, equal and fair, and correct in amount. To King, a moral, fair, just law will become unjust in some certain cases. It seems, if King talks about the standard of just and unjust directly and firmly, the whole statements will sounds more strong. But this statement will be contemporary and fail to stand the test of time. As a very intelligent logical thinker, King perfectly connects this changing issue with segregation. First, King implies that the basic concept of the just and unjust law will never change, by raising the definition at the very beginning of the section of this topic. After setting down the foundation, King starts to give deeper and deeper explanation about just and unjust. In the paragraphs before 18th, King ties just and moral closely. Then, in the paragraph 18th, he throws his big bomb out—it’s not our standard of just and unjust changes, but the standard of what is moral! Human’s moral standard is changing all the time. Two hundred years ago, Britain took his domination in America for granted; one hundred years ago, it’s quite common to keep slaves; fifty years ago, segregation wasn’t something bad (at least, most white people believe so). Since we have such an unstable moral standard, how could we make a decision about just and unjust? Then the second aspect of “just” comes to rescue. A just law should be equal and fair. That’s the very point King wants to explain in this paragraph. Although King doesn’t really mention this term in this letter, it’s implied by the meanings of just and unjust. When he set everything well, the main idea of this paragraph, also of the whole section of just and unjust law, comes out naturally. Since the segregation is definitely against fair and equal, a law, even it used to be just, becomes unjust. This statement implies that any law should give way to non-segregation. Here King actually put the non-segregation in the position that’s higher than a law. That’s what King’s key point about the definition and explanation of just and unjust law.
Now, we can have a panorama of paragraph 18. It implies King’s idea about moral standard, connects just and unjust problem with segregation closely, and paves a way for the father explanation about King’s nonviolent champion, which is mentioned in the coming paragraph.
Paragraph 19,1: desegregation —The comparison between African American and Native American
The 19th paragraph is a claim of King’s mean idea of non-violence and non-segregation. We can’t have the further discussion without knowing the definition of segregation. Segregation comes from root “-greg-“, which means gather or assemble. So the basic meaning of segregation should be set apart,
not together. In the Oxford English Dictionary, we have following explanation of segregation:
1) “The action of being separated, apart, isolated.
2) The separation or isolation of a portion of a community or a body of a person from the rest.
3) The separation of a portion or portions of a collective or complex unity from the rest. “ (OED S-T 399)
“Cambridge dictionaries online” seems give a specific definition. It says segregate means: “to cause to become separate or to keep apart, often for social reasons and esp. because of race or sex”. (Cambridge dictionaries online http://dictionary.cambridge.org/)
Think about the long way of desegregation that black people getting through, it’s natural to associate this to another way—“the road of tears”. The fate of native Americans perhaps is “the saddest stories in American history”( Tassel, Corn “The Great God of Nature Has Placed Us in Different Situations” Chief Seattle “The Sight of Your Cities Pains the Eyes”, introduction, Casts of Thought: Writing In And Against Tradition. Eds. George Otte and Linda J. Palumbo New York: Macmillan 1991, 397). This simple and kind people, who used to treat Mayflower’s passengers like brothers or sisters, were driven thousands miles away from their homeland by white men. Although, much different from black people, Native American were also treated cruelly and unequally. But the reaction of Native American seems on the opposite side of black people about desegregation.
The statements in Chief Seattle’s letter proclaim the standpoint of Native American on the segregation issue. Facing the advanced and civilized white society, Native American cried out:” We are a separate people!” Instead trying to join in the society, trying to desegregate like black people, Native American decided to live separately, in order to keep their own unique culture and religion. Why does Native American and black people treat the same issue in opposite ways?
The study on history of two peoples may help us answer the question. Initially, African American was shipped from African, their homeland, as slaves to the United States. Most of the slaves, who were freed in the civil war, were the second or third generation of what I call “Native American black people”. The history and culture of African was denied to these people, and almost disappeared in King’s generation. On the other hand, the fact that most black people were Christian or Islam indicates the original African religion was abandoned, too. African American had already considered themselves as a part of the United States, a part of its history, and a part of its society. This complex makes black people strongly wanted to join in the white society, and have the equal rights with the white people. To these black people who is far away from their homeland, who has no culture of their own, who has no history to make them be proud of, it’s hopeless if they didn’t struggle for their rights to join the white society as equal members.
The situation of Native American is totally different. They are the first inhabitants of this continent. Although, how could native American move to this continent is still in research, it can’t be deny that these people had formed a unique culture and social system. To Native American, the Britain Puritans were foreigners. However, these foreigners were much stronger than Native American was. After innumerous battle with white people, Native American found it’s hard to solve the land problem by wars. On the other hand, old Chiefs also felt the threat coming from the white advance and civilization to the younger generation. Some of the young Native American bought convenient tools of white people and forgot the traditional way to live. Under the threat of losing their own tradition, Native American had to give up and move away from their land and ask to live separately. Unlike black people, Native American treated themselves as an individual and independent society. At the same time, we should also notice that to white people, “individual and independent” means Native American have less influence on white society. If we push this statement to extreme, the white society would survive if Native American disappeared one day. So from this point of view, living separately is the only way for Native American survive as Native American. That’s why they have to support segregation.
Paragraph 19:2 Non-violence campaign (MLK Vs Malcolm X)
In this paragraph, King makes a claim, which says, if people have to break some unjust laws, they “…must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty…in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice…” (King 408). I think that is the main idea of non-violence champion. As King has proclaimed the law, which is against the non-segregation, is an unjust law, he gives a further explanation of how to resist the unjust law. It seems, King believed in the power of the “conscience of the community”(King 408), and, kind of depended on it to solve the problem. When King encourages people to devote themselves as victims of unjust laws in order to “arouse the conscience of the community”, Malcolm X and his followers believed indirect rebellion. As King said: "...I stand in the middle of tow opposing forces in the Negro community.” (King 410) On one side, there are some middle class black people who kind of satisfied with the present situation and afraid to change; on the other side, the lower class black people who believed “white man is the devil” ( Malcolm X “Saved” :from the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Casts of Thought: Writing In And Against Tradition. Eds. George Otte and Linda J. Palumbo New York: Macmillan 1991, 94) wanted to change the condition instantly with the extreme action. Thinking about King is a Christian minister, it hard for him to ask people resist the segregation by violence. In the anti-segregation champion, King actually should be considered to be a moderate. It’s very easy to understand Malcolm X as a radical on this issue, if we notice that Malcolm X believed in Islam who has innumerable wars and struggles with Christianity in the middle east. On the other hand, the social classes differences between two of them have a great influence on their principles. King was born in a middle class family and was well educated; while Malcolm X used to be thief and learned reading and writing in jail. I don’t imply that King has no idea about the suffering of lower class black people, but his social position makes him closer to the middle class, who were afraid of changing and violent revolution. Malcolm X, who was on the side of poor black people, really wanted to change their sad situation instantly, even by violence, for they had nothing to lose. The long road of non-violence champion seems too long for those people. So the difference of two of them is quite clear, in a word, King asked for non-segregation in the prerequisite of social peace, (thus, the middle class’s property can be protect); Malcolm X asked for immediate gains and practical results.
The Conclusion—Non-violence Campaign Today
No one will deny the great influence of “The Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In the last century, non-violence movement, which was emphasized by Doctor King, played an important role as a peaceful but strong weapon of people all over the world, who fight for civil rights.
“The civil rights movement in the United States, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by his example, as was much of the movement against the Vietnam war. The mass movement for disarmament, against nuclear war, and the environmentalist movement, have been influenced, among others, by Gandhiji. Non-violent resisters in the Philippines played a significant role in the struggle to overthrow the
Marcos dictatorship. Liberation theology, which has spread in Latin America, Africa and Asia, draws some of its inspiration from Gandhiji” (Gandiji and the struggle for liberation in South Africa Written in connection with the 80th anniversary of the imprisonment of Gandhiji in South Africa. Published in Asian Times, London, January 29, 1988, and in several papers in India. ).
When it comes to the now millennium, the non-violence movement is still brisk in every corner of the world. The movement of Chinese Falun Gong is a great example for non-violence movement.
“Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa) is an ancient form of qigong, the practice of refining the body and mind through special exercises and meditation. The benefits of practicing Falun Dafa are numerous and varied, ranging from improved health and newfound energy to mental clarity, stress relief, and peace of mind. At the heart of the practice are the supreme principles of the universe: Truthfulness, Benevolence, and forbearance.” (“Introduction of Falun Gong” http://www.falundafa.org)
The most famous movement of Falun Gong is the non-violence sit-in movement in front of Zhongnanhai—the Chinese political center, on April 28th
1999. What they asked was an aspect of civil rights—the freedom of belief and religion. After this movement, the Chinese government treated Falun Gong as an evil religion and began to force the believers give up their faith, and even arrested resisters. When I was in China, I heard lots of terrible news about Falun Gong on newspaper, TV, and radio, such as many people committed suicide or murdered their relationships because of believing in Falun Gong. But I also wondered why there are so many people including some well-educated scientists and powerful politicians believe in it.
It’s not hard to figure out when you understand that Chinese people face a serious faith problem in the beginning of a new millennium. In a word, Chinese, especially young people, believe in nothing. After the culture revolution, the fairy tells of communism was broken. Although, the constitution protects citizen’s freedom of belief and religion, the communist education and social environment does not encourage people believe in Christianity or other religions. So, the current situation is that one of the biggest countries in the world has no unitary belief; On the other hand, people need to have spiritual sustenance. It’s very natural that people come to believe Falun Gong. Actually, Falun Gong is not the first Qigong organization in China. Xiang Gong, Chinese health intelligent Gong also has billions of believers. It is the non-violence movement makes Falun Gong so special. Falun Gong is the first one to stand up and struggle for their belief freedom. I don’t want to critic whether Falun Gong is right or not. My point is the non-violence campaign, which bring desegregation for American black people, may help Chinese struggle for their democratic rights. Although, I can’t deny the big effects that the Communist Party of China (CPC) did in this field, it’s far from enough. The problem is CPC actually is the dictatorial party of China, then how could Chinese government be democratic? One great example is the press of China, which is treated as the mouth and tough of CPC. That means there is no freedom of the press. When American people take the freedom of the press for granted, Chinese journalists are checking their reports again and again in order to pass the exam of CPC’s news exams.
Maybe Falun Gong is an evil religion, maybe its non-violence movement will bring China a stricter political environment, maybe it’ll disappear under the stress of CPC, but I still believe it’ll arouse Chinese people to fight for their democratic rights in this peaceful but efficient way. Just like the founder of the non-violence movement Gandhi said:
” I have not conceived my mission to be that of a knight-errant wandering everywhere to deliver people from difficult situations. My humble occupation has been to show people how they solve their own difficulties. My work will be finished if I succeed in carrying conviction to the human family, that every man or woman, however weak in body, is the guardian of his or her self-respect and liberty. “(M. K. Gandhi, Words of Today” www.gandhitoday.org)