Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an evocative discussion of struggle and perseverance to find justice. Dr. King in the letter identifies that he is in Birmingham because of injustice (King, 1). The injustice he equates to as being similar to Paul’s travels from Taurus to Macedonia, because there were pleas for help (King, 1). The parallels between the message of the civil rights movement and the message of the Apostles are important, because both are bringing Good News (i.e. the words of God). The issue that King is focused upon is equality of humankind, which is highlighted in the reason that he came to Birmingham. This reason was simply to “engage in nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary”. There was no threat of violence of harm from King and his associates; rather merely the goal was to right an injustice. The response of the authorities was to place him into jail. Nevertheless, King maintains his moral beliefs about the non-violent approach to the civil rights, and the acceptance of such struggles to spread the word on the equality of humankind (King, 1). Therefore, the thesis statement of this paper is:
In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail “ Dr. Martin Luther King expresses the significance of the civil rights movement by appealing to an individual’s sense of justice, empathy, and spiritual morality.
Dr. King’s dedication to justice without violence is clearly maintained, even though he has been deprived of his liberty. In fact, King turns the struggle he is experiencing to further his argument for social justice, but not by any means (Leff & Utley, 42). Thus, King in this letter uses social justice to appeal to his audience in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, in which two themes are present, which are: 1) the message of social justice has to continue, even in the case of oppression; and 2) the nature of this message still remains peaceful, even in the case of adversity (Oppenheimer, 795). The audience is to both his followers and the persons that have incarcerated him, as he states:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations (King, 1).
This direction highlights that, although his followers will take interest in the letter, there is a direct message to the individuals that are opposing King’s actions and the civil rights movement generally. He highlights that the demonstrations are challenging the oppression of African Americans and minorities (King, 1).
These underlying causes have to be challenged, in order to evoke change and bring equality. In fact, one of the most striking and appealing statements that King makes is:
I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying cause (King, 1)
This appeal to the emotion and reason highlights that the concept of justice requires change, but change can only be identified when challenged. The challenge in a peaceful demonstration is the correct manner, because there is not harm to others and is based upon justice. In fact, the distinction between just and unjust laws can only be highlighted if the citizenry highlight this point (Oppenheimer, 821).
Historically, the incarceration of King in the Birmingham jail was a turning point in the civil rights movement, because it resulted in President Kennedy signing the Civil Rights Act 1964 (Oppenheimer, 822-3). The appeal to both reason and emotion in this letter has an impact, because it is not discussing merely an oppression. Rather, the theme is social justice and the common heritage of humankind. The statement on superficiality is an example of King’s powerful rhetoric, which aided to create change (Leff & Utley, 43). The appeal illustrates the power of language and not violence, which Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were supporting (Leff & Utley, 38). The effect of standing on the platform of social justice whilst being punished for supporting it and not resorting to violence has the effect of self-reflection on the reader (Leff & Utley, 43).
In fact, the strong Christian ethic, which is present in the letter, will go to the heart of the South due to prevalence in both the white and black communities. This means the parallels to Paul the Apostle will strike a chord to the moderate White Christian churchgoers, because Jesus’ word is based on equality, social justice and the common heritage of humankind (King, 2-3). Another clever use of King’s rhetoric is the use of Jefferson and Lincoln (King, 4-5), because drawing parallels to the foundations of the USA and the Constitution highlights that the end goal of equality is paramount. Thus, the challenge of King’s actions based on Christian morality would be fundamentally flawed, because the morals are the underpinning of his actions.
Another, important refutation of the arguments presented by the white society is the binding of the African American plight with that of Jewish peoples (King, 3). The use of Hitler illustrates that America fought such oppression, which means that it should not commit similar segregation. In the same frame of mind, King argues that the civil rights movement should not engage in violence, because it only breeds violence (3). Although, King recognizes why some would believe violence is necessary; it simply is not. Thus, through King’s rhetoric the message of peace, equality, social justice and morality creates a message that shows the power of language.
In conclusion, King’s letter is one of the most powerful tools in the fight against segregation in the South. Oppenheimer argues that it played a significant role in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act 1964 (821). The diverse audience of the letter, plus the direct appeal to the white community of the South, illustrates that there is no place for exclusion in the case of social justice (i.e. justice is justice). This means that there is a moral obligation to challenge social injustice, which must be undertaken with morality, empathy and non-violent action. This is what King had done to end up in jail, which is King is evocatively asking – Is this right (if I were white)? This is an obvious rhetorical question, because the answer is no.