Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Birmingham Campaign

Paul Fischer
Dr. Felicia Kornbluh
US History: the 60’s

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham expanded the movement or Birmingham Campaign beyond the stuffy intellectual laws, decrying the “analysis” that had ineffectively left his people persecuted and poor, while standing up in a tangible and legitimate fashion for what he believed in. Nearly a generation after Gandhi, King shows that unguided protest invites brutality and effectively, if not for his own lifetime then for posterity, provides the case and leadership to fight back against the oppression, segregation, and disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the United States at the time.
At the time of the letter, the movement was the victim of a “broken promise” and Martin Luther King Jr. was facing a withdrawal and retreat from Birmingham. A key part, and he was told by supporters to not do this from lack of popular protest, was the involvement of children in his protest. By moving beyond the conventional means of protest including restaurant sit-ins and bus boycotts to involving the children immediately and directly affected by protest or inaction, Martin Luther King Jr. showed the full involvement and mobilization of these communities towards impacting the dire policies in place.
There are four basic steps to nonviolent campaign, which are outlined in the letter from jail. Then proof is provided that this has occurred in the campaign. The irony of Martin Luther King Jr. writing on whether “you are able to endure the ordeal of jail?” while in jail himself is not lost on the rhetorical power, repition and reinforcement make the letter itself, as a description of a campaign, an example of nonviolent maneuvers in a conflict. This is contracted in a sort of give and take contemporary discussion in the letter which takes multiple viewpoints into consideration while retaining the understanding that there is a common goal for those who will read his letter; it is for the doubting Thomases, the fellow supporters, and the soldiers of equality who marched with him themselves.
The intended audience is important as there is nothing in this letter that could infuriurate one of the oppositional persuasion, in fact it might even bring them around. That is a sign of nonviolent demonstration in itself. The mere point that in this campaign, outlined as a battle without violence, in the publicity of this letter the reverend invites his opponents and friends to the drawing board alike and still retains the moral rectitude and personal control to help them see the moral light as well as the opportunity to give his allies the tools to make progress.  The definition of just and unjust proves a pivotal point in this letter as it is explained that “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” and in defining the parameters of action, there has been a philosophical or moral boundary that is crossed over which cannot be retreated.
Though there was ultimately a retreat from Birmingham, it was a retreat of victory. The letter was written, four young school girls had been killed in a church bombing and America began to see the power status quo as barbaric and brutal, reactionary in a silently murderous manner. By appealing beyond those at the planning table or drawing board, the most radical of his compatriots, and appealing to the country’s greater fear of communism, this letter may be written from a jail of defeat but it represents the call to action, like the Gettysburg Address for Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War that will give the Civil Rights movement the authority and power to dwarf and vigorously redefine the opposition as well as their own boundaries and goals.
In the end of the letter, a tribute is paid to those who are the most directly and abundantly targeted with this appeal. His fellow demonstrators, the “demo” teams that blew up American politics in the mid 1960’s, ones who may at the time have felt discouraged or afraid. They may have felt that the battle was uphill or steep, but as he quotes, “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest” which is not a quote from Gollum of Lord of the Rings but an indication of the undying loyalty of those around him, and of the incipient and pervasive damage on the African-American population of under-education, health-care, and lower standards of living. It shows the willingness of his movement to carry out the battle until it is finished, and to do it on the terms which have been shown to work and are outlined by Martin Luther King Jr. in this letter.

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