Martin Luther King Jr. was undoubtedly one of the most influential, if not one of the most important and crucial people in the twentieth century. His crusade for civil rights for blacks, in conjunction with the majority of the black community, allowed the United States to make one final and long delayed transition from a country with liberty for some to a country with liberty for all. King’s methods of obtaining these rights were often criticized by many people in the unsympathetic white, southern community, determined to maintain the status quo and their stranglehold on modern society. King was dubbed an extremist by many, with a major criticism of his willingness to break the laws of the states that he protested in.
In reality, King’s tactics of civil disobedience provoked a mass uproar from the white community, but this uproar and the violence that followed were some of the main reasons for the success of the black civil rights movement. After being imprisoned for a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, King was forced to endure these criticisms and complaints once again, although, unfortunately, one of his main sources of condemnation was the Alabama clergy. They addressed a public letter to king in which they expressed their disapproval of his methods for engineering social change, claimed him to be an outsider, and questioned his ability to adhere to negotiations rather than demonstrations to change the Birmingham situation.
King, in a rare move, confronted these accusations in a detailed letter written from prison to the clergy of Alabama. In this letter he detailed the explicit purpose of direct action for social change, explained the specific timing of his demonstrations, elaborated on his views of laws in terms of “just” and “unjust” regulations, condemned the clergy as well as the entire southern United States for denying blacks of their innate and guaranteed rights, and finally acknowledged the “real” heroes of the south. King was not known for retaliation in any way, shape, or form. However, this retaliatory effort in the form of written word proved to be a watermark for the civil rights movement as a whole.
Dr. King’s letters written from his Alabama jail cell were a rare source of feedback and response from the usually unphased civil rights leader. Although the main recipients of the letter were obviously the Alabama clergy, the authors of a scathing criticism to his methods, it appeared as if King was addressing a wider audience in his letter. The clergy attacked King’s methods for bringing about social change in many ways. Not only did they call him an outsider, but they came just short of accusing him of hypocrisy by questioning his disregard for the law and attempted to shred the validity of direct action in the South.
King was particularly disturbed by this, the church’s reaction, to his peaceful struggle for freedom. This letter obviated that even the highest ranks of moral authority were permeated by the poisonous ideals of racism and hate. Although King formally addressed his response directly to the clergy who authored the letter to him, he also addressed the South as a whole, and seemed to use the letter as an opportunity to make his agenda clear to those who were not fully aware of it. In his discussion of law and morality, King makes it clear that he is fully comfortable using every available resource to create an environment that is safe and favorable for black citizens in the United States to live, even in the deepest most hateful parts of Southern America.
An important component of King’s letter to his opponents was a discussion on the value of direct action, including explanations of its purposes, consequences, and causes. In his letter, King specifies that the purpose of direct action bring about the elusive negotiations sought after in the clergy’s requests of King. He claims that direct action is not a tool of agitation and insubordination, but one that forces stubborn and otherwise tight fisted leaders to make just concessions to the black community that he would not otherwise make if not pressured by the community. He claims that the concept of tension is a favorable feeling in the context of the civil rights movement, that tension is necessary for the drastic changes called for in Southern America. King believed that causing crises, disorder, and tension would lead to the negotiations that would free his beloved people from oppression, and eventually lead to the complete liberation of his people.
The organizers of the Birmingham campaign for peace, including King’s organization, the Southern Leadership Conference, chose the Easter season specifically for their protests and demonstrations. This was not a mistake, nor was it a coincidence. King details the purpose of the timing of the demonstrations in his response to the clergy, noting that the Easter season is one of the most important and profitable shopping seasons of the year. This allowed the black community a much greater effectiveness in crippling the Birmingham economy than at other, less demanding times of the year.
This tactic was not new, and was used routinely throughout the civil rights movements to pressure stores and other profit establishments to make concessions to the black community or lose record amounts of business and money. Unfortunately for white America in the South in the nineteen sixties, the black community held a significant amount of sway in the economic sphere, and their absence of revenue created a vast problem for businesses in the area. Although without proper rights, the black community commanded a far greater power, that of the dollar, and used it to their full advantage throughout the civil rights movement.
King also responded to the accusations by the clergy of hypocritical actions and opinions regarding the law. The clergy directly questioned his reverence for the laws the benefited the black community in contrast with his constant disregard for segregationist laws of the southern states such as Alabama. King responded by making an important distinction between “just” and “unjust” laws of the land, claiming that the segregationist laws of the south are completely unjust, and are thus invalidated by their failure to reflect the correct moral code of the times.
King claims that laws that are unjust and enforced by society are not laws at all, but restrictions meant to be broken by those that they harm, citing Nazi Germany as a prime example of behavior that was undoubtedly legal, but completely and utterly unjust. In his explanation of law, he claims that his reverence and respect for the laws of the country are consistent and completely in accordance with his constant civil disobedience. He states that he is not disregarding the laws of the country, nor is he advocating a routine breakage of said laws, but simply attempting to destroy laws that should have never been so in the first place.
King’s response to the clergy was not merely a declaration of his agenda, nor simply an explanation of his actions. Dr. King also does a fair amount of editorializing in his letter, in which he criticizes the south for delaying the simplest of rights to be given to black for years after they were due by law. King is quoted as claiming, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Although this quote had been used many times throughout the civil rights movement, King elaborates on the vagueness of the cliché quotation. He argues that not only have blacks been denied their rights established by law since the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, but that the rights of blacks have been denied since the beginning of African slavery in the Americas, and that the establishment of a new order of freedom in the United States, though beneficial and necessary, would not erase in injustices committed by America for over three hundred years. This historical truth is important to note when examining the context of the civil rights movement. King explains this flawlessly in his letter from the Birmingham jail.
Finally, as if to acknowledge that his struggle in jail is representative of a larger national issue, King pauses momentarily to note the “real heroes” of the south. These heroes are not those who simply hold an opinion claims Dr. King, but rather people such as James Meridiths, who routinely endured the jeers and threats of angry southern mobs. King praises those who have endured the oppression of the south, and calls their actions of patience and nonviolence the most heroic of all. King expresses his admiration for all those who not only died for the cause of civil rights, but lived to prevent it from continuing. This distinction is instrumental in King’s response, because it shows that he did not consider himself to be the crux of the struggle for civil rights, but rather the complete opposite. King makes it obvious that the real heroes of the south are those who are oppressed and stay patient, not those who are violent and stand in the way of the greater good.
The civil rights movement was one of the most dramatic political and social transitions that the United States has ever been forced to undergo. The unrest brought about by the various demonstrations and marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. did much to aid the cause of liberation for blacks in the United States. However, the white power structure inundated in southern society made it difficult, if not nearly impossible for King to realize all of his goals. Nevertheless, through mostly peaceful and nonviolent actions, negotiations, and the actions of politicians such as Lyndon B. Johnson, the civil rights movement succeeding in transforming society in not just the south, but in the entire United States, making it a more hospitable and comfortable place for all races, creeds, and colors to live.
This movement did not come without cost, however, and King was constantly criticized for his “extremist” methods of social change, even by the Christian churches of the south. This dissatisfaction prompted several Alabama clergymen to address a letter to Dr. King while he was serving time in the Birmingham prison for his role in a political demonstration. They attempt to strip King of his righteous cause and accuse him of being a political outsider and an agitator with no regard for law and little respect for the tactics of negotiation. In an unprecedented action by King, he responded directly to the letter from his residence in jail, addressing the clergymen in one of the most significant letters of the twentieth century.
In it he not only explains his motives for direct action instead of blank negotiation, but he also explains the reasons and thoughts that contribute to when the black community decides to stage a demonstration. King also uses the letter as an opportunity to explain his designations of law, specifying that there are “just” laws and “unjust” laws, and claims that these unjust laws are not meant to be followed and must be changed immediately. In addition to this, King also acknowledges the extent of injustice that has plagued the United States even before its struggle for independence, saying that justice has been denied to blacks for over three hundred years. Finally he brings his letter to a close by showing his admiration for the “real heroes” of the south, those who endured the lasting oppression of white America.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s works have endured in time due to their influential nature on the actions of the United States in the sixties and beyond. However, as a complete advocate for social change, King was assassinated before he could completely finish his work. Ironically, his death helped bring about the final pieces of legislation that composed the close of the civil rights movement.