After receiving word of the necessity of a direct action program in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, arrived with staff members to advocate desegregation. They performed nonviolent demonstrations in order to call out racial injustices and provide support for their affiliates. His plan was to create tension in the community that was ignoring their problems in order to force a negotiation. He got arrested after leading a march through the Alabama streets and was confined in a Birmingham jail because the court ruled he was no longer allowed to hold protests.
While he was in solitary confinement, he received criticism from white religious leaders. He responded to their hatred in a letter titled “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and defended black resistance. He asked his critics to question their moral beliefs and explained the importance of the immediacy of his campaign by illustrating, “…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”. His letter became so famous and powerful it remains a monument for the Civil Rights Movement today.
Civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter “Letter From a Birmingham Jail (1963), claims that the oppressed and marginalized should begin the fight for equality and visibility immediately. He supports this claim by illustrating how social activists are constantly being told to wait for a “better” time to advocate their beliefs in order to diminish their power and silence their arguments. He understands there will never be an appropriate time to react because the oppressor doesn’t want to willingly give others freedom and the promise of change in the future is just temporary relief.
King’s purpose is to convince his critics how the oppressed are creating organizations, sharing resources, and challenging authority so injustices can be stopped. Through his skillful use of language, we can learn how he places emphasis on certain claims in order to catch the reader’s attention. He establishes a formal tone for the reader, which is the Birmingham clergymen and any opposers of his actions and morals. His argument is compelling because he utilizes parallelism to compare the false ideas of superiority to inferiority in order to support his claims about the necessity of civil disobedience. He asks his critics to sympathize with his impatience and reevaluate their moral standards and beliefs after seeing his rebuttal to their arguments.
He argues how the emotional stress of broken promises is frustrating and creates a sense of invisibility. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes the rhetorical strategies comparison and contrast, prolepsis, and rhetorical question to challenge unjust laws and morals and create tension in order to force negotiations for the Civil Rights Movement.
First, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes compare and contrast to emphasize the irrationality of the United States slow-paced civil rights movements. He wanted to create feelings of uneasiness from his audience by asking them to question the logic behind our justice system by alluding to competing, more socially advanced nations. He claims, “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” The effect of this is to invoke more self-reflection and action from oppressors and bystanders.
The decision to mention other countries by discussing their differences was strategic because it supports his argument on the interrelatedness of justice. He mentions how merchants in his community promised to take down racial signs from stores, but they never got removed. Leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights called a moratorium on demonstrations in order to slow down the activists and kill their spirits, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood he had to place pressure on the nation to end the delays and force a compromise. He uses metaphors to emphasize his intolerance for this stagnation. He mentions how he has become disappointed with the general lack of motivation and the fear of the myth of time.
Reverend Shuttleworth’s broken promises inspired him to keep organizing direct action programs and convince others to turn their displeasure into action. He illustrates, “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.” He creates tension in order to warn of his purpose to place pressure on society in order to influence mindsets. This strengthens his argument by encouraging citizens to challenge unjust laws and ideas.
Additionally, he uses the rhetorical strategy prolepsis to challenge oppressional arguments and beliefs. He addresses opposition to the civil rights movement in advance and argues their logic to help further his claims. Opponents asked, “why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?” and he explains how the new administration supports segregation and wants to maintain the same, problematic society. Mr. Boutwell being elected did not equate to immediate liberation and equality like some people had hoped it would. Although he was more gentle than the other candidate, Mr. Conner, he still supported racial separation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds his audience that people would try and use the election to cloud the racial issues and use it as a distraction for their activism, so immediate direct action was necessary to confront the situation.
History shows that privileged groups become immoral because it’s easier to uphold their privileges than to question their advantages. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this and knew the elected officials would keep pushing back the Civil Rights Movement so without pressure, there would be no legal or moral changes. He argued, “we must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” He understood prejudice and racism would continue no matter whether him and other activists acted immediately or gave the new administration time to procrastinate, so he figured there was no sense to wait.
Further, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes rhetorical question to ask the church to evaluate its support, or lack of, to the Civil Rights movement. He argues, “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.” He noticed how many church leaders were not taking action and remained silent. He had become disappointed with religious members ignoring racial injustices and pushing their agendas instead of focusing on those social issues. He notes how the church used to be extremely powerful and influential and helped push popular opinions to transform society. They would often be called agitators and disturbers, like how civil rights leaders were, but always continued to stick to their beliefs. They would put an end to evils and wrong acts by committing to God, but they began to become weakened and stick to the status quo to appease their audience.
The shift in the Church’s attitude and power was noticeable and he stated, “I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.” He wholeheartedly believed freedom would eventually be reached across America, but encourages white churches to hear demands and try to empathize with the oppressed to fight for justice and a better future.
On the whole, contemporary rights movements are a continuation of the conversation with this piece because racial injustices are still occurring. The issue has evolved over time since media outlets attempt to cover up oppression and increase the amount of unseen injustices. Many activists bring light to these situations by sharing the stories on social media or by protesting. On November 2, an autopsy report for Marshall Miles was released and showed extreme physical restraint by law enforcement to be the cause of his death. He was arrested on October 28 and was moved to the Sacramento County Main Jail, where he was restrained by officers and became unresponsive shortly after. The coroner determined he had blunt force injuries and died from “complications of cardiopulmonary arrest during restraint” (Sullivan). A horrific video was released of multiple officers holding down Miles with him repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe.
After the coroner’s report was released, Miles’ mother and a small group of Black Lives Matter activists marched down the street and protested the unjust racial treatment. Keyan Bliss, an activist present at the protest, stated, “I think it’s important to realize this pattern of black lives being killed in police custody.” The demonstration was to support Miles’ family and show solidarity for the other lives taken by police officers. Civil rights are still an issue in modern society and is being fought for through several groups, Black Lives Matter being one of the bigger movements. They fight against injustice, violence, and racism just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did when he led the march in Birmingham.
Contrary to his predictions for a better, more liberated future, the modern day American justice system is unfortunately mirroring the 60’s social and racial issues. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encourages perseverance and compares the civil rights movement to the actions of Socrates, an infamous philosopher, by arguing “to a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.” He pushes his followers to continue resisting unjust actions, laws, and beliefs until we have achieved equity for all.