Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested, along with five others when they protested against the segregation ordinance on a local discount store. They refused to leave when they were asked to by the store’s staff because the staff refused to serve them when they were not allowed to sit-in, or enter. These men were sent to the Birmingham jail. They were denied of any visitors, and delayed their parole. Through such an experience, Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon his fellow African-Americans and his fellow Christians, specifically the clergymen, to stop this continuous injustice that is being hailed upon them.
Hence, he called for a “Direct Action”. In the following paper, Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” will be discussed. Furthermore, the paper should conjure a distinct significance of Christianity to the African-American Civil Rights Movement through the analysis of the letter. Letter From a Birmingham Jail: a Call for a Non-violent Direct Action The “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. , sought out equality between the White and Black Americans, especially on the Southern States—specifically on Birmingham, Alabama.
It is in Birmingham that Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced the oppressive segregation ordinances, first-hand. He wanted to test his proposed strategy of non-violent action or protest against the segregation laws that seem to degrade their existence and personality. He and his companions felt the power that the law has given the White Americans over them, while sitting-in at a stand-up (probably for blacks) lunch counter on a local discount store: “When he and five others sought service, they were told that the counter was closed.
When they refused to leave, they were arrested” (Matthews 1996). So, his test seem to have proved that a non-violent approach towards the issue was futile since the whites have too much control and support—through laws—over the minority, specifically the blacks. White Clergymen saw these passive protests as useless, for the time being, and as hurried, seeing it as a hastened occurrence. With even clergymen, men of God, against King and the Black-Americans’ passive protests for equality, he does not seem to have any other choice.
However being a man of his word, he refused to give up to extremism and decided to continue with the passive protests, starting with writing this letter addressed to White clergymen. The Letter’s Context and King’s Imprisonment He and five others were arrested for protesting against white-favored-and-made ordinances which degrades the blacks individuality and rights to be branded as a fellow human being. Injustice seem to prevail, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others believed.
However, he saw hope in swinging the pendulum towards their favor, and wrote a letter addressing these issues that were quite visible within their society that many whites and even some blacks who decided to remain ignorant of; a fact that somewhat saddened King. Through the Birmingham letter, he sought to achieve in helping these people, especially men of the Church, understand the current situation in society which was the injustice brought upon by the hammer of white traditionalists and extremists, in the Southern area. Indeed, they have lost the civil war to the freedom-upholding North.
However, they still uphold the same Southern state-of-mind and the practices that their predecessors fought for; although, slavery was not the case here anymore. It was definitely an aftermath created and left by the existence of slavery. Black-Americans still felt continuous prejudice coming from the whites, who saw them as a far more inferior race than them. For King, it was time to call for action against these degrading segregation laws and continuous derogations: “As in so many experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.
We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community” (The King Center 2000). In other words, he has reached the point wherein action is needed to present their case publicly, for the purpose of catching the nation and even the world’s attention to the concerns present in their society.
The letter explained why such action was needed immediately, countering the thoughts of many clergymen—seemingly biased against the blacks’ movement—that these protests were being rushed or were hastened constructs by an impatient racial group. The Addressees Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this letter towards the clergymen, whom he believed would understand the immediate need of African-Americans to be free of injustice and constant prejudice from power-corrupted White Americans.
Men of God should understand the dire consequences and ill-fated aftershocks brought about by social injustice within society. He gave examples of such to help these clergymen further understand the sacrifices his fellow Black-Americans had gone through already, like what Roman Christians had gone through under their persecution by numerous emperors—the gravest of which was Nero. With their knowledge of social injustice through the history of Christianity, King hoped that they would understand the reasons behind the continuous passive protests being conducted by Black-Americans.
Furthermore, he expressed his disappointment with the church, as they seem to be more against the protest being conducted, rather than supporting the cause for equality: “I felt that the ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders” (The King Center 2000). In the hope of ratifying the support of the Church, he wrote the letter and addressed it to these individuals; the ones he thought would understand their cause, the most.
His expression of disappointment towards them may have been a result of the Church’s continuous bias against their cause, as well as their blind understanding of it. King knew that action has to be made and vying for support over the subject matter is an action that was immediately needed. Also through the letter, King explained the passive protests for their cause, as opposed to that of other Black Nationalist Groups which seemed to uphold a more extreme action against the segregation laws. Major Influences and Beliefs in his Protest
The beliefs of Martin Luther King, Jr. were influenced greatly by Christian thinkers and philosophers, that sought justice and equality within society. Within the letter, he used the view of St. Augustine about the laws that were just and unjust, as St. Augustine claimed that “an unjust law is no law at all” (The King Center 2000). Indeed, it proves a point how unjust laws are useless in relation to society’s progress. He used the comparison between the just and unjust laws and created a major noticeable rift between the two, which were quite present in their society.
It seems that unjust laws are indeed made in order to further degrade their race, branding them as inferior to that of the whites’. He also used St. Thomas Aquinas’ view on unjust laws, whereas it states that: “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. […] Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (The King Center 2000). In fighting for the civil rights of the blacks, King wanted to rid society of the unjust laws that separated society, since these laws also degrade the “personhood” of Black-Americans.
These may be noted as just two of the many influences that King gathered his strength from. However, some teachings of intellectual thinkers have caught his eye, in relation to upholding the civil rights of his fellow blacks: Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Hegel. These three apparently help him construct a better understanding to the situation of Black-Americans in a White-controlled society, as well as help him formulate a solution to this seemingly growing cancer and infection that has also affected the entire world.
Gandhi and his concept of “satyagrapha” or “true force” has influenced King’s concept of non-violence and its importance in their passive protests, and the upholding of their civil rights towards a community which has a history of oppressing their racial group (Matthews 1996). Reinhold Niebuhr and his concept of “social evil”, especially on his approach on “Christian Realism”, has given light to the fact that love alone would not be able to initiate social reforms within their society.
However, it can be used in ways upon which it would exhibit a significant impact towards society (Matthews 1996). Finally, the Hegelian dialectic (by Hegel, of course) offered King a positive outlook on the existence and need of conflict and struggle, as it enables society and its people to grow politically and socially (Matthews 1996). This actually supports his ideas of the need to initiate a passive protest in order to address the abuses and the wrongs being done to their people.
For him, it has to stop immediately before it grows into an enormous problem that will be resented and regretted by society. He warned them of violence, chaos, and destruction that may occur within society, if these protests were continuously ignored by others. Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement At the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. , Christianity was probably on a prolific level, as both White and Black Americans practiced this religion and rejoiced on its God-given blessings that seemed to have rained upon each of them; the blacks tend to rejoice more actively.
However, Christianity and its preachings were able to open Black Americans into an undesirable reality of hatred, persecution, injustice, and prejudice. Christianity has taught and upheld love and equality between individuals through its teachings. However, Black-Americans believed that there is a complete absence of such within their society, as White-dominated authorities and laws seemed to have quelled them and stripped them of their civil rights—rights that should be equally distributed to all members of the society.
The “Black Church” seemed to have acted as a congregation ground for these civil rights activists, as Christianity became a fountain of influences and teachings that fueled the movement: “A movement based on secular ends […] drew its sustenance from spiritual understandings, language, and motivations. […] It was ministers and church activists […] who lent their moral passion and steely commitment to the quest for freedom” (Harvey 2002). So Christianity had a significant influence towards the movement during King’s time.
The movement was indeed being fueled by the influences of Christianity in their search for equality within their society. King was trying to win the church’s favor, asking it to return to its former glorious self that help fellow Christians unconditionally. Throughout the letter, he expressed great disappointment towards the church, as it turned into an absent entity in society, rather than an active force that helped people (The King Center 2000). Conclusion The church was seen by King as an important ally for their movement to achieve something.
However, the church has turned a blind-eye towards their concerns within society. As injustice continued, they had no choice but to conduct numerous non-violent protests in order to address the continuous unequal treatment and prejudice by the whites towards them. They are fellow Americans, why should they treat them different? They have been continuously ignored and persecuted for upholding their civil rights. However, it did not stop the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. to push forward in order to make society better for all Americans, starting off with gaining the allegiance and support of the Church.
References Harvey, P. (2002). Religion, Race, and American Ideas of Freedom: From the 17th Century to the Present. Retrieved May 26, 2009 from <http://web. uccs. edu/pharvey/relracecivilrights. htm> Matthews, T. , Ph. D. (1996, June 1). Lecture 25: Martin Luther King, Jr. Retrieved May 26, 2009 from <http://www. wfu. edu/~matthetl/perspectives/twentysix. html> The King Center. (2000, January 5). Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Retrievedd May 26, 2009 from <http://coursesa. matrix. msu. edu/~hst306/documents/letter. html>