Reflections on Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail


Martin Luther King’s letter – document from Stanford Online Library

_MG_8718-1  by Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin

In his letter from Birmingham, Jail King responded to the critical publication “A Call for Unity” by eight clergymen who chastised both his presence and actions as “unwise and untimely.” King established a common background with his “fellow clergymen” through classical, literary-historical, and biblical allusions in order to clarify and declare his reasoning towards the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the legitimacy of his personal presence in Birmingham. One of the main threads in King’s letter is his underlying dialogue with the question if individuals are ever morally justified in breaking civil law. King addresses six major issues in his letter: negotiation, timing, breaking laws, triggering violence, the myth of time, and extremism. In order to illustrate his points and appeal to appeal to logos, ethos and pathos King uses classical, historical, and biblical allusions as well as quoting idealist historical figures as his rhetorical strategies.

King uses the example of Socrates, the Western archetype of wisdom, the father who birthed academic freedom through his acts of civil disobedience to address the assertion in “A Call for Unity” that King’s actions, “even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” In his appeal to logos King writes, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” In effect, King created the following syllogism: If Socrates is good, and Socrates was right to create tension so that the mind could grow, it follows tension is good for inspiring growth in mankind. Furthermore, King implies that proceeding without tension is going to leave man in “the dark depths of prejudice and racism.”

His allusion to historical events such as the discovery of the Americas, Nazi Resistance, and the Boston Tea Party seek to establish connections between morally bankrupt oppressive societies; the silent white moderates; transformative historical events; and figures of high moral and ethical repute both present and past; and the Civil Rights Movements justified use of civil disobedience when faced with injustice. In response to the clergyman’s claim that his use of direct action was “untimely,” King appeals to pathos “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights”, a reference to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. References like this give an aura of authenticity and credibility to the points and events of civil disobedience being illustrated in King’s letter. One of his examples is the vandalism of the Boston Tea Parties which was named heroic by the American public at the time. He continues his arguments with ethos, pointing to Hitler’s ‘legality’ of actions in his pursuit of the complete annihilation of King’s “Jewish brothers” versus human morality. He then juxtaposes Hitler’s legality versus the Hungarian Freedom Fighters illegality in their struggle to obtain freedom. “We can never forget that what everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” He leads the readers to the conclusion that devotion to “order” rather than justice blocks the “flow of social progress.” His syllogism here is Civil disobedience and breaking unjust laws because one obeys “higher laws” is, therefore “in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

King uses the pathos of the early Christians biblical struggle as his justification for “the mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice.” He links the struggle of the Civil Rights movement to that of Christianity by alluding that despite their collective suffering neither group submitted to unjust laws. Furthermore, King asks these powerful rhetorical questions; “Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? Was not Martin Luther an extremist…and John Bunyan?” By mentioning influential biblical and theological figures who suffered for their beliefs, King appeals to both pathos and ethos by showing the moral exemplar personified and the inspiring influence they had on Christianity. King specifically aims for pathos when he mentions three Christian extremists who were crucified, including Jesus Christ the Church’s representative of mankind’s highest potential of a human being. He also refers to the church as ethos. For MLK, “the church as the body of Christ” has the moral obligation to stand against unjust laws. He quotes St. Augustine who said: “An unjust law is no law at all.” Finally, King further stokes the embers of sympathy by describing the disappointment he had to the church’s reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. He points out that Christians have “to obey God rather than man” and that a living Church, the true ecclesia, as the representation of Christ-like goodness and hope of the world, needs to be again a thermostat that transforms the mores of society.

King’s message to his fellow Christian Clergyman can be compared to prophetic message of Jeremiah who “… had come to the dungeon cells and remained there many days.” It was Jeremiah who delivered a message from the Lord to the Hebrew people who were struck with despair after their community had been split and almost destroyed. In essence, King assumes the mantle of prophecy for his people and their struggle. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Prophecy is born precisely in that moment when the emergence of social political reality is so radical and inexplicable that it has nothing less than a theological cause.” Not only did King symbolize the Zeitgeist of the desegregation movement, he also grabbed hold of his community stuck in despair. Through his moral, ethical and intellectual leadership he rallied support, empathy, understanding, and sympathy for the Civil Rights movement and desegregation across color lines to “dispel the dark clouds of racial injustice” for the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood.”

Author: drcowinj

As an Assistant Professor for TESOL and Bilingual Programs at Touro College, Graduate School of Education Dr. Cowin’s focus is on the Responsibility to Touro Students (Teaching), Responsibility to the Discipline (Scholarship), Responsibility to Touro College and Community (Service). Dr. Cowin strives to inspire students to be creative and to model the love of lifelong learning by inculcating the habits and attitudes that create agile mindsets. 21st-century learning extends well beyond the classroom, and Dr. Cowin incorporates takes full advantage of online learning technologies for L2 language acquisition and current global trends in teaching English as a Second Language She represents high levels of scholarship and participates fully in the larger world of TESOL academic discipline. Ongoing research, expressed in scholarly contributions to the advancement of knowledge is demonstrated through publication, presentation and participation in academic conferences, articles in Education Update, blogging and other scholarly activities, including public performances or exhibitions at conferences and workshops such as the Plekhanov University of Economics keynote address in 2018. Of special interest to her are The Blockchain of Things and its implications for Higher Education, Current Global Trends in Teaching English; Developing Materials and Resources in Teaching English – Methodology; E-learning & Micro-Methodology in Teaching English; and E-Resources Discovery and Analysis.

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