Critical Analysis of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Essay
The article is about the injustice meted out on the African Americans in the US before the passing of the Civil Rights law that initiated sweeping civil reforms in the US, guaranteeing equal rights for African American citizens. Written as a letter by Martin Luther King Jr., the text criticises the lack of progress in the elimination of oppressive segregation laws in the American South.
The author further criticizes white Christian leaders in the American South, accusing them of not being vocal enough in condemning the evil inherent in segregation laws. The author accuses these leaders of supporting the status quo by refusing to support the cause of the Americans in their attempt to have these laws changed or repealed.
The letter is addressed specifically to the Southern Christian and Jewish leaders, who had asked the author to stop his non-violent campaigns in Birmingham, for the sake of overall peace in the city. The author, in response, wrote this letter to explain why his campaigns were necessary, and garner their support for similar future campaigns in an attempt to rid the American South of the repressive segregation laws.
Author’s Two Main Concerns
The author addresses two overriding issues in his attempt to convince these Southern religious leaders (and other concerned readers) why the segregation laws were unjust, and why inaction would never result in a change. The author states that, segregation laws were unjust because they deprived African Americans a sense of self; moreover, African Americans had an obligation to fight these unjust laws.
According to the author, the segregation laws made African Americans acquire a sense of inferiority. The author lists the evils that are visited on African Americans because of these laws. African Americans were routinely lynched by mobs, killed by police, referred to in derogatory terms such as “boy”, and denied entry to various social places due to their race (Par. 15).
Such events weighed heavily on the consciences of African Americans, leading them to have a belief that they were inherently inferior to their white counterparts. The second issue that the author addresses is the belief that the fight for change and the repeal of these unjust laws cannot be postponed or delayed.
Since the Southern religious leaders had requested the author to exercise patience in his demand for reforms, the author is adamant that his non-violent push for equal rights for African Americans could not wait for an ideal or opportune time to proceed – justice delayed too him was justice denied (Par. 14).
Critical Response and Analysis
These two concerns by the author are justified. The argument that the segregation laws were inherently unjust, contributed to high poverty rates amongst African Americans, and made African Americans to feel inferior to their white counterparts is plausible. Segregation laws were ratified by most constitutions in Southern States; therefore, such laws, however unjust, acquired a sense of legitimacy amongst the citizens of these states.
Subsequently, most educational, religious, public and private institutions would, out of obedience to state constitutions, pursue policies that entrenched segregation. Due to this almost omniscient presence of segregation laws and policies, the average African American would, in his daily practice, encounter some form of discrimination.
African American children would also easily encounter and perceive discriminative acts against them. Therefore, due to the high prevalence of such discriminative laws, African Americans easily and inevitably acquired a belief that they belonged to an inferior race.
Secondly, the author is justified in being impatient with the pace of reform in the country. The author informs the Southern religious leaders, who had urged him to be patient in his demand for reforms, that had they been the ones to experience the effects of the unjust segregation laws, they would not urge for caution and patience.
According to the author, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (Luther, 1963, Par. 14). African Americans were right in being impatient with the slow and almost nonexistent pace of reforms in the country, and in the Southern States in particular. The emancipation proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, which effectively ended slavery in the US, was signed in 1864.
This proclamation was supposed to grant African Americans equal citizenship rights, and was intended to free them from all forms of discrimination previously directed at them. The author writes his text/letter almost 100 years later and yet African Americans are still in some form of bondage wrought by segregation laws.
Clearly, the African American benefited little from leaving the struggle for equality in the hands of his oppressor. African Americans were thus right in engaging in non-violent protest and other forms of civil action to push the concerned leaders to repeal these discriminative laws.
The author uses many relevant analogies, quotes, observations and examples to state his purpose and give credence to his argument. The author states his most graphic example of the discriminative, vile and heinous acts experienced by African Americans in paragraph 15.
The author describes the atrocities committed by white mobs and the police on African Americans. He chronicles the acts, beginning with African American mothers and fathers being lynched, African American youth being cursed, kicked and killed by the police, and proceeds to list other such crimes, ending the list with instances of African Americans being referred derogatively as “boy” regardless of age, and African American women not being properly addressed as “Mrs.”
The crux of the author’s argument on why his followers could not afford to be patient in their demand for reform rests on the examples of heinous acts meted on African Americans stated here. The order of these crimes on African Americans as placed by the author almost obscures the deadly crimes such as lynching and extra-judicial deaths.
By ending his numerous examples with comparatively minor acts of African Americans being referred to as “boy”, or the women not being given the title “Mrs.”, the author makes the serious crimes of lynching and extra-judicial killings appear less so.
The progression should have started with these minor acts and ended with the unforgivable, wicked and heinous crimes of lynching, extra-judicial killings and beatings, to make them more prominent, as they would be if they were to appear at the end of the list. Such an arrangement would foreground these serious crimes, and subsequently stir indignation in any reader. It would also explain why waiting for reforms to take place at a slow pace advocated by the Southern religious leaders was not an option – lives were at stake.
The author has convincingly stated his purpose; that of highlighting the unjustness of the segregation law, and the need for a pro-active approach bring about the repeal of these laws. His example on crimes against committed against African Americans, served to highlight the less serious crimes at the expense of crimes such as lynching and murder.
Luther, M. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Web.
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