Friday, 11 November 2016

Civil Disobedience: MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail

by Olivia Watkins

Protesting in 1963
Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail, written on the sixteenth of April 1963, presented inequality as a ridiculous concept defying the very ideals America was built on, from the basis of Socrates, as well as the constitution itself. Thus he argues the idea of postponing this fundamental equality as being unreasonable, and segregation as absurd. He backs up his ideas and values, throughout the letter, with the beliefs of Christian and Jewish theologians to show inequality as a religious and moral wrong instead of only being a constitutional wrong. This letter is so effective because it outlines any possible counter arguments and destroys these arguments using logic, reason and religion. Using these methods he makes segregation seem old fashioned and against any of the ideas of the enlightenment, on which America was founded.
Firstly, I must make clear whom Martin Luther King was addressing. Indeed, the letter was initially aimed at congressmen - thus its literary respectable and controlled manner in order to avoid alienating these powerful men - however it also aimed at the wider populace of America. He is most definitely aware, as made clear by the more generalised attitude of the letter, that this document will be published nationally, and perhaps even have international grounding eventually. Therefore throughout this speech I must make you aware that I am referring to both the congressmen and public of America in terms of the letter's effect.  
Protesting in 2016
Martin Luther King uses the ancient world of Greece, through the beliefs of Socrates, metaphorically referring to the resisting American population as the ignorants of Ancient Greece. Socrates was of paramount importance to the ideas of a social revolution just as equality is paramount to the social development of America. This analogy shows the mere fact that segregation was accepted in America presents it as a socially backward nation. This is of extreme precedence to an America which is desperate to be the most modern, most technological - as would be the case in the space race which would be currently occurring - and the beacon of freedom during a war of ideology. Therefore referring to their beliefs as backward, such as the unenlightened thinkers of the ancient world, is significant and powerful in causing his audience to question whether their bigoted views actually hold any modern grounding in a rapidly evolving world.   

Another way Martin Luther King makes the idea of inequality seem absurd and backward is through the law itself. He continuously uses analogies to compare unjust and just laws throughout history and biblically to his civil disobedience now. He quotes St. Augustine "an unjust law is no law at all" which grounds his argument in the concept that if he can convince a religious congress and public that the discriminatory laws of America are wrong then they fundamentally cannot argue with him. St. Augustine isn't the only public figure he refers to. He continuously refers to theologians such as Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Christian St. Thomas Aquinas, summing up their respected views and how they back up his argument. Coming back to the idea of a just and unjust law MLK sums up inequality through the median of law '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.' which points out laws that only apply to blacks and not whites are unjust and thus are not a law at all. This allows for civil disobedience, which Martin Luther King had committed, for the aim of social progress thus obedience to these unjust laws is backward. MLK also uses biblical references to breaking unjust laws to show that doing so is paramount for social evolution and development and prevents blind obedience to authority like sheep, which the enlightenment was supposed to abolish. He references 'the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.' which evokes biblical imagery in the minds of a religious audience. He also refers to 'the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of the chopping board rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.' and 'the Boston Tea Party' to show the hypocrisy of unjust laws in America and how backward they are in a nation built on Socrates' ideas of academic freedom and and the enlightenment ideals of equality.
In addition MLK makes black prejudice seem so unnecessary and counter productive holding America back from being the most evolved and greatest country in the world. He compares America to the thought of modernly inferior Asia and Africa describing the latter as moving 'with jet like speed' which is a modern and technological noun used as an adjective towards a dramatic goal of 'gaining political independence,'. Comparatively, America is to 'creep at horse-and-buggy pace' an old noun used as an adjective towards the mundane goal of 'gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter'. This highlights that political inequality is detrimental to the future of an America which aims to be the most free nation in the world. These lines would be particularly significant in persuading the leaders, thus Congressmen, of such a nation that they need to implement the constitutional equality into their society if their country wishes to remain the superpower it is in 1963.
I will conclude that MLK's letter from Birmingham Jail was fundamental for persuading Congress and, to a wider extent, the American public that inequality is detrimental to social development in the United States. This letter is extremely effective in highlighting the levels of inequality in America, so that one can not turn a blind eye to them, showing how absurd this concept is in a society that was founded on the basis of equality, and finally showing how without a legislative implementation of such equality there can be no social development and growth within the United States of America.

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