Regarding A Letter From A Birmingham Jail
In 1963, the state of Civil Rights in America presented a period of time to which the future showed great promise for those fighting for equality, while at the same time there existed a large portion of the population who remained irreverently resistant to change. Though constitutional rights had been set in place protecting the rights of all citizens, the continued dissent toward the African-American people by racial contrast was still a position of conflict, especially in the southern most states of the country. It is truly amazing that the plight of the black man, having overcome such adversities as slavery, which was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865, and winning the right to vote with the 15th Amendment, still faced such tremendous struggles nearly a hundred years later.
Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., an ordained Baptist minister who was also considered to be the most notable leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, fought long and hard to decimate the voting restrictions placed on African-American's in such forms as literacy tests, and similarly prejudiced policies. Dr. King advocated for an end to voting discrimination in order to obtain equal rights for Black American voters. His protests, though peaceful were often met with dissention from those who were racially motivated and did not agree with his point of view. Subsequently, King who disregarded an injunction set forth by Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins ruling against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing," proceeded to march and stage sit-ins regardless, and was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama on April 12th, 1963. (Wiki 2016) It was from this jail cell that Dr. King wrote his now infamous letter in response to criticisms of his methods by his fellow clergymen at the time and the reasons that his protest actions could not and would not be put on hold as was the suggestion by a number of opposing groups. Dr. King's eloquent and insightful words delivered in this letter gave new perspective to those who questioned his practices, as well as offered renewed hope for those who were already in support of the cause. It can truly be said that Dr. King's letter from a Birmingham jail touched the hearts and souls of many with his decisively poignant address, and it forever changed the course of history.
This historic letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham jail in 1963 was much more than a mere letter. In essence, it was a call to action, and a means of attempting to open the eyes of Clergymen, and the Church as a whole, in order to bring awareness of the oppressive atrocities against blacks that were taking place during that point in history. Many of Dr. King's fellow clergymen believed that his actions should be put on hold and that now was not the time for civil disobedience. Dr. King's philosophy in peaceful protesting was to execute non-violent direct action (King 1963) by utilizing coordinated marches and sit-ins that would garner the attention of government and media in order to show the people of the United States what was transpiring in the southern states. Birmingham, was chosen to carry out these protests as it was said to be a KKK stronghold (historylearningsite.co.uk) and, as Dr. King described it "America’s worst city for racism." (King 1963) Surely, the movement would gain an enormous amount of attention. By placing themselves out in the open in a peaceful non-violent way they were taking direct action that with any hope at all would have considerable influence on the rest of the country should the media shed light up on it. Inserting themselves into a position upon which they could and would be beaten, arrested and jailed was precisely the goal of King, and those for whom he was leading.
This action in turn created a tension within the community. Without resorting to violence, King believed that a constructive type of tension, an irritant to be precise, could be used to bring about change in order to "help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."(King 1963) King's purpose in instigating a non-violent straightforward engagement was to craft a state of affairs so urgent that it would inexorably become the key to finding the middle ground between opposing factions. (King 1963) The pressure that was undeniably felt throughout the community in which these peaceful protestors demonstrated, was already in place. However, it was easier to deny the proverbial elephant in the room than to address it. Keeping the status quo was invariably the hope of many who believed King's protests to be an action that would lead to a much larger problem. Dr. King's persistence to stay the course and not give in to the will of those who opposed his actions only proved to bring to light the tension that was readily being felt. Many, though not agreeing with his methods, did in fact believe in his cause but opted to remain silent for fear of aggravated retaliation from the opposition. King's attitude of acting now rather than later is most likely the primary reason that the Civil Rights era happened when it did. As Dr. King stated with such conviction, " For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." (King 1963)
As a Christian minister, Dr. King held that engaging in civil disobedience was a justifiable action based on moral law, i.e. the law of God, and that there are in fact two types of laws to be taken into consideration when looking at the laws of God in contrast with the laws of man. Those two are just and unjust laws. Just laws, will adhere to the moral law while unjust laws will be out of sync with what the word of God says. (King 1963) There are times in which the government establishes laws that are not in line with the moral law, and these laws are deemed unjust and should be fought to be corrected. The power of government is not absolute, but God's law is. The law of God; the moral law given by God, is above the government, and governments that run divergent to God's law are totalitarian and should be defied. (Geisler 2010) As Dr. King explains in his letter, "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. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal." (King 1963) It is the moral responsibility of every citizen to disobey unjust laws. (Geisler 2010)
One thing in particular that helped to bring awareness to the Civil Rights demonstrations in the early 1960's was the role of the national media. Having photos of the injustice that was taking place on the front page of national newspapers, along with giant headlines, gave Dr. King's protests the advantage they needed to move forward. Television coverage too, inevitably showed the ugly face of the atrocities that these pacifistic demonstrators were subjected to. The national Television media provided an honest look at the happenings in Birmingham and other cities during that era and successfully made a huge difference in history and the lives of those who strived for change. (npr.org) While commending the national media for playing a pinnacle role in shaping the future to come, the same appreciation could not be extended to local news outlets at that same time that chose instead to avert attention to the happenings in Birmingham and surrounding territories by pushing stories to the second or third pages of newspapers and by failing to adequately cover what actually transpired. The local news media held a biased view in support of the white population, government, and local law enforcement, and excluded any testimony of person's of the black population that were undergoing such painstaking discrimination. (npr.org) The media today seems to be much more willing to let the truth be known. However, there is a strong leaning towards the liberalist ideology among much of the modern news outlets, and because of this, there is still a very biased perspective taking place. It appears that the primary focus of the media on many civil rights stories leans so much to the left that only one side is being given credence.
This famous letter by Dr. King, written from the jail in Birmingham, Alabama was a pivotal point for the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. The provocation that led to the dismissal of the wait attitude adopted by his fellow clergymen and others made way for the banning together of those like minds who would rise to the occasion and see the movement through to reach its goal. Triumphantly, victory was achieved just a few years following when Dr. King led a series of marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery. The 2015 historical fiction film by the name of Selma, depicted this historic achievement in stark reality, and with considerable accuracy. There have however, been some criticisms that the portrayed relationship between Dr. King and then President Lyndon B. Johnson was highly inaccurate. The movie itself is a remarkable work of cinematography that brilliantly captures the emotion of that space in time, and sheds significant light on the struggles, and atrocities that the African-American people faced in their plight to be given equal voting rights. Within the first five minutes of the movie, tragedy strikes when four young black girls walking down the stairs of their church in Birmingham, Alabama are killed in an explosion by a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan. This harsh opening really sets the stage for all that follows and instills the seriousness of what the movie attempts to convey. As the film progresses, and the daunting actions taken against the peaceful activists are carried out in such barbaric fashion by use of billy clubs and tear gas, it is a truly sad state of affairs. Then there was the fatal shooting of an unarmed protestor by the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and the image of Amelia Boynton lying beaten on the bridge over the county line that the national media had given front page coverage to. Not surprising, tensions were certainly on the rise for these events, and the American people were horrified to see such behavior as the first of the three marches to Montgomery was also televised across the nation. March 7, 1965 then became known as "Bloody Sunday."
Selma, is an impressive movie not only because of the historicity it depicts, but because of its character development, and genuine appeal to the heart of the viewer. When Dr. King, during the second walk to the capital is seen approaching the county line over the bridge, he notices that troopers had moved to allow the march to pass. Unexpectedly, he then stops to kneel and pray, and subsequently then turns back. This moment in which the wisdom that descended upon him was so rightly realized was one of utter astonishment. Very well acted!
It is true that racism is a learned behavior and ultimately no one is exempt from its influence. All are introduced to this evil at some point in their life. Myself, I remember growing up and hearing from the adults around me how disgusted they were when Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was declared a national holiday. I even heard one person state that although they had been given the day off from work, they planned to work anyways in protest to the holiday. Ignorant at the time of who Dr. King was, and what he did, I went along with the prejudice that surrounded me. As a man who is much more aware of the world around me and the history that has brought us to this place, I am saddened by the bigotry that I was subjected to as a youth. I am even more ashamed that racism is still a major point of contention even today. Upon reading Dr. King's letter, I was deeply moved to say the least. This man was not the person that I grew up believing him to be. He was educated, holding a doctorate in systematic theology, he was sincere, a pacifist, poetic, full of love and the fear of God. He was a brother in the Lord, a professing Christian as I am, with an understanding of the world and the word of God that exuded wisdom like I have rarely encountered. His letter presented a nobility that few ever ascribe to. Knowing that there were so many Christians who turned a blind eye to what was transpiring in Birmingham made me sick to my stomach, but Dr. King's ability to shed light and call them out from the darkness was inspirational. A lesson can surely be taken from Dr. King's methodology and practicality as it pertains to the misguided demonstrators of today. In Dr. King's own words, "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." (drmartinlutherkingjr.com/mlkquotes.htm) Racism may be a learned behavior, but it can also be unlearned.
The current state of civil rights in America, is unfortunately one of much deeper complexity than what took place in the 1960's. It seems as though, in an effort to ensure equality is granted to all, one person's rights are exchanged or overlooked for another's. Perhaps the most prominent area for civil rights struggles today can be identified with the gay rights movement. Under this umbrella, are also included the issues of same sex marriage and gender neutral restroom facilities. When it comes to homosexuality, there is no definitive scientific evidence to support that homosexuality is anything other than a learned behavior, and herein lies the problem. From a Christian worldview, homosexual behavior is morally wrong and there exists no right to do wrong. Rapists, murderers and, pedophiles have no rights civil or moral and thus there are no civil rights to engage in homosexual acts. While they may have rights as citizens, they do not as homosexuals. (Geisler 2010) The fight for equal rights being granted to homosexuals becomes problematic because there are differing views on how morals are based. Most would agree that morals are subjective but, the question then, is whose opinion has power over another's? Anyone can be justified to act however they see fit with this view. On the other hand, if morality is objectively based, as is the case for the Christian worldview, Dr. King was correct in his depiction of the moral law or the law of God being what we should strive for. Needless to say, when a Christian is forced to do something against their religious beliefs, as in the marrying of a same sex couple, it is now their first amendment rights that are being violated. As it stands, there is a disagreement between legal and Christian perspectives. There must be some sort of compromise made that would protect and ensure equal rights for all parties according to the constitution. Certainly this is not an easy feat to achieve and requires more work. A good starting point might be to consider once again Dr. King's letter.
Birmingham 1963 - History Learning Site. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/the-civil-rights-movement-in-america-1945-to- 1968/birmingham-1963/
By the same token, a just law is a code that a. (n.d.). Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quotations. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/mlkquotes.htm
Geisler, N. L. (2010). Christian ethics: Contemporary issues & options. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
How The Civil Rights Movement Was Covered In Birmingham. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/06/18/193128475/how-the- civil-rights-movement-was-covered-in-birmingham
"Martin Luther King Jr." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
DuVernay, A. (Director). (2015). Selma [Video file]. USA.