The now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 is historically significant because it lays out the rationale behind the peaceful protest movement King started. He wrote the letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and published it in The Atlantic under the title “The Negro is Your Brother.” It was a response to eight ministers who had published a public appeal to their various congregations to have them stop demonstrating as they had been against the segregation laws that had been used to severely oppress the black population in the southern states since the end of the Civil War. King was the leader of these demonstrations, so the letter seemed to be addressed primarily to him and it was just that he should be the one to respond to it. He had to respond to it from the jail because he was one of the 53 people who were arrested after a staged protest held on April 12, Good Friday (Blake, 2013). The protests to that point had not been very successful, yet had led to a great number of arrests and impending violence since the KKK had infiltrated the police department.
MLK’s letter justifies his actions to this point and highlights the need for more nonviolent demonstrations such as the one he’d just led rather than less. He argues that is only through this sort of action that the white population could be forced to negotiate better terms for the black man. He argues that it is not immoral to refuse to obey unjust laws and that the frustration within the black community is reaching such proportions that something must be done now, while peaceful means are still possible. Otherwise, this frustration will reach its boiling point and explode into violence. Then he criticizes the church leaders for failing to recognize the needs of their community and helping him to channel this energy more positively.
In his letter, King called on the codes of morality: “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, an unjust law is no law at all.” King was responding to the oppression of his people by arguing that things needed to be changed and encouraged many white people to support his cause by using reason to argue his case. At the same time, King shames the church leaders for their lack of understanding about their responsibility to bring attention to such immoral actions as segregation laws. While King had some success with this letter, since peaceful protests continued with a much higher number of people participating (Maranzani, 2013), blacks still do not enjoy true equality. This is very clear in the many cases of racial profiling that have led to so many black people in prison as compared to white people. The profiling of black citizens in the name of ‘getting tough on crime’ is not effective, is highly discriminatory, and causes more harm, ultimately, than whatever good may come of it. “Racial profiling in any manifestation is a flawed law enforcement tactic that is in direct conflict with constitutional values” (McDonald, 2001). Racial profiling of blacks causes a higher incarceration rate and is patently unfair and un-American. Today’s church leaders have been mostly silent on this and other ethnic imbalance issues, so MLKs letter remains as valid today is it was when he first wrote it.
- Blake, John. “How MLK became an angry black man.” CNN. (April 16, 2013). Web.
- King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” University Of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center (April 16, 1963). Web.
- MacDonald, Heather. “The War on the Police and How it Harms the War on Terrorism.” Supra. Vol. 7, I. 16. (December 31, 2001). Web.
- Maranzani, Barbara. “King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, 50 Years Later.” History in the Headlines. (April 16, 2013). Web.