Discuss Dr. King’s use of restraint in the “Letter.” What does it reveal about his purpose, and what is its effect?
Considering the context of its creation, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is remarkably restrained in tone. Throughout his career, many critics of Dr. King argued that he was too deferential to the white authorities that facilitated segregation and other racist policies, but the tone here seems to serve several purposes. First, it conforms to his ultimate purpose of justifying his cause as being in the name of justice. He does not wish to validate his audience’s deep-seeded fears - that the black movement is an extremist set that will engender violence. Therefore, by utilizing restraint, he earns a sympathetic ear to which he then declares his proud embrace of extremism and tension. His difficult arguments end up practically unimpeachable precisely because he has presented them through logos as well as through pathos. However, the restraint also allows him to reinforce one of the letter’s central themes, the interconnectedness of man. There are times when he distinguishes himself and his cause from that of his opponents, particularly in terms of race. However, he for the most part suggests that all men are responsible for all others, an idea that would not be as effective if the tone of the argument was too fiery and confrontational.
How does the “Letter” deal with the subject of race?
Considering it was written in a situation so infused with racial issues, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is often strangely divorced from explicitly racial issues. Obviously, Dr. King cannot avoid the topic, but much of his argument, especially in the letter’s first half, is presented in universalist terms and through abstractions like “justice” and the interrelatedness of man. He argues that the clergymen, and his larger audience, should support his cause not because the victims are black but because it is the right thing to do. However, this passionate but restrained argument ultimately sets the stage for a declaration of what scholar Jonathan Rieder calls “a proclamation of black self-sufficiency” (94). Once he establishes the definitions of justice and morality, Dr. King argues that the black man will succeed with or without the help of white moderates because they operate with the just ideals of both secular America and divine guidance. Further, he implicitly suggests that by continuing to facilitate the oppression of the black man through moderation, his audience is operating in sin and will ultimately be on the losing side.
Why does Dr. King decry moderation?
In Dr. King’s argument, moderation is a reflection of the moderate’s ignorant and unwitting sinfulness. In terms of the former, the white moderate operates under an illusion that patience will be more effective towards ending segregation than tension will be. Through a variety of legally-structured arguments, Dr. King illustrates the fallacy of both these assumptions. He argues that moderation is but a handy disguise for cowards who fear upsetting the status quo more than desire to pursue justice. However, because he stipulates that his audience is ostensibly interested in the virtue of justice, he argues that moderation allows them license to live in a sinfulness of inaction. To view the suffering of others but to remain silent facilitates a world where men are “separate,” which he equates with sinfulness. Through a variety of unambiguous comparisons – the just crusader to Jesus, and the moderates to those who did not protect the Jews of Nazi Germany – Dr. King decries moderation as the largest obstacle towards equal rights in America at the time.
How does the discussion of group immorality relate to the letter’s overall purpose?
One recurring idea that supports Dr. King’s arguments is that group mentality supports and enables immorality, and that the individual must therefore act for justice even when the group does not share that goal. He makes this point explicitly in the early part of the “Letter.” This argument supports his defense of civil disobedience, allows him to criticize the church for supporting the status quo rather than empowering crusaders for change, and supports the idea that law must reflect morality since it might otherwise be designed solely for the comfort of the majority. Overall, the discussion of group immorality supports his purpose of encouraging individual action in the face of injustice, and criticizing those who do not support such individual action for fear of upsetting the status quo.
Who is the letter’s intended audience?
On the surface, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is intended for the Birmingham clergymen who published an open letter criticizing the actions of Dr. King and the SCLC. And yet little by little, it becomes clear that Dr. King intends this statement for a much larger audience. Based on the arguments he makes and the stipulations he assumes, it is possible to construct the audience he means to be affected by this letter: a moderate, white, generally moral but conflicted group. He is clearly addressing people who represent the power class, but assumes in several arguments that they support the ideals of justice, at least on the surface. More specifically, he assumes they accept the validity of Christian morality. And yet his harsh tone is much more universalist than simply the criticism of the clergymen would support. In attacking moderation, he addresses himself to parties as high-ranking as the Kennedys to as everyday as students and churchgoers who are witnessing the changes of the civil rights era without admitting their own moral responsibility to support it as a quest for positive change.
Professor Jonathan Rieder argues that the “Letter” can be understood as having two sections: the “Diplomat” and “Prophet” sections. What does this mean, and how do these sections differ?
While Rieder’s designations are perhaps too tight to be perfectly applicable, they do help to understand the overall progression of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” At the beginning, Dr. King is playing a “diplomat,” attempting to reach a certain end through polite, restrained means. His hope is that he will not only defend himself against the clergymen and white moderates in general, but also that he will encourage them to support his cause. Knowing that their fears and anxieties will predispose them to doubt his call to action, he presents the call through a variety of rational arguments and personal pathos. And yet as the arguments progress, Dr. King’s attacks become less passive aggressive and more direct, moving him into a sort of “prophet” who no longer argues that he needs the support of his audience. Though he obviously would prefer it, he is firm in his commitment to justice and certain that his cause will succeed because of that commitment. By the end, he is no longer arguing, but telling his audience that change will come, and that they should join him not because he needs them, but because they need it so as to not avoid later regret over their cowardice and sinfulness.
Discuss Dr. King’s use of allusions throughout the text. How do they strengthen his argument and underscore his overall message?
Due to the extent of his higher learning, Dr. King had ready access to a number of allusions from a variety of religious and secular traditions, and he makes full use of that knowledge in the “Letter.” While each allusion serves a particular purpose in the context of the argument in which it is used, when taken together they underline two aspects of his argument. First is his argument that all men are interrelated, and responsible for one another. The multiple traditions from which Dr. King draws his allusions reflects this belief, showing his deference for and trust in a variety of approaches, including: secular theory; Jewish theology; Christian thinkers; political figures; and historical persons. Secondly, Dr. King’s use of multiple traditions for his allusions reinforces the unimpeachability of his argument. By directing the text to peoples of so many backgrounds, and using their most celebrated figures to support his case, he makes it difficult for any person to view the overall argument as separate from him or his own culture or background.
In what ways does the “Letter” attack the clergymen even when being outwardly deferential towards them?
If nothing else, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a masterpiece of pointed passive aggression. Even when he becomes more confrontational in the letter’s second half, Dr. King is always deferential, offering the possibility that the clergymen sin from ignorance or error, thereby offering them a way to backtrack. And yet his attacks are incessant, usually through implicit threats or suggestions. When he explains the many distinctions that support his cause – such as the differences between just and unjust laws, violence and nonviolence, or just means and unjust ends – he is implicitly suggesting that the clergymen are too dense to realize the nuances of the situation they have so openly criticized. In other cases, he uses unimpeachable figures – like Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln – to illustrate the basic way in which the clergymen are acting hypocritically. Finally, he uses occasional warnings, suggesting that oppressed people will inevitably fight for freedom, and so the clergymen are inviting violent revolution if they do not support Dr. King’s nonviolent crusade. Overall, the “Letter” is a litany of attacks even though it is presented more as a defense.
In what ways do Dr. King’s repeated references to Socrates help to elucidate his overall approach?
Except for Jesus Christ, Socrates is the allusion Dr. King most often uses to make his point. Though the allusion serves several particular purposes – as a symbol of wisdom or of civil disobedience – it often speaks to Dr. King’s overall approach in the “Letter.” The Socratic dialogues are masterpieces of misdirection, as Socrates does not offer answers but rather questions assertions made by other people. His overall point is ultimately made by speaking in his opponent’s language, hence showing the natural human inclination towards fallacy. Dr. King uses a similar approach, structuring most of his letter as a direct defense against the criticism published by the clergymen. By speaking in their voice, he suggests a sense of deference even as he is dismantling his opponents’ arguments and revealing them as misguided, or worse, fools. Further, he frequently uses their definitions to show how they are contradicting themselves. Though Dr. King has a more pointed suggestion to make about the world than Socrates did, he nevertheless recognized in the Socratic method a rhetorical approach that would pacify the knee-jerk defenses of his opponents so he could then defeat them.
Detail the distinction between just and unjust laws. Why is it important Dr. King make this distinction?
Arguably the most sophisticated section of the “Letter” is Dr. King’s distinction between just and unjust laws. Simply put, he suggests that just laws uphold human dignity, while unjust laws demean it. Though he makes other subsumed distinctions (like the way just and unjust laws either punish or include minorities), this general definition serves to illustrate his overarching point: that laws are not separate from morality, but instead ought to be reflections of it. Presupposing that his audience accepts the virtue of morality (and more specifically, of Judeo-Christian morality), Dr. King illustrates that unjust laws demean all men, the oppressed and oppressor both. Thus, a moral man cannot simply suffer those laws because they are the law. The argument lays the groundwork for the “Letter” to pose a call to individual action, a defense of those who stand up and sacrifice themselves and their comfort in the name of freedom and justice.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is addressed to several clergymen who had written an open letter criticizing the actions of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during their protests in Birmingham. Dr. King tells the clergymen that he was upset about their criticisms, and that he wishes to address their concerns.
First, he notes their claim that he is an “outsider” who has come to Birmingham to cause trouble (170). He defends his right to be there in a straightforward, unemotional tone, explaining that the SCLC is based in Atlanta but operates throughout the South. One of its affiliates had invited the organization to Birmingham, which is why they came.
However, he then provides a moral reason for his presence, saying that he came to Birmingham to battle “injustice.” Because he believes that “all communities and states” are interrelated, he feels compelled to work for justice anywhere that injustice is being practiced. Dr. King believes the clergymen have erred in criticizing the protestors without equally exploring the racist causes of the injustice that is being protested (170-171).
He then explains in detail his process of organizing nonviolent action. First, the SCLC confirmed that Birmingham had been practicing institutionalized racism, and then attempted to negotiate with white business leaders there. When those negotiations broke down because of promises the white men broke, the SCLC planned to protest through “direct action.” Before beginning protests, however, they underwent a period of “self-purification,” to determine whether they were ready to work nonviolently, and suffer indignity and arrest. When they decided they could, they then prepared to protest (171).
However, the SCLC chose to hold out because Birmingham had impending mayoral elections. Though the notorious racist Eugene “Bull” Connor was defeated in the election, his successor, Albert Boutwell, was also a pronounced segregationist. Therefore, the protests began.
Dr. King understands that the clergymen value negotiation over protest, but he insists that negotiations cannot happen without protest, which creates a “crisis” and “tension” that forces unwilling parties (in this case, the white business owners) to negotiate in good faith. He admits that words like “tension” frighten white moderates, but embraces the concepts as “constructive and nonviolent.” He provides examples that suggest tension is necessary for humans to grow, and repeats that the tension created by direct action is necessary in this case if segregation is to end (171-172).
He next turns to the clergymen criticism that the SCLC action is “untimely.” After insisting that Albert Boutwell was not different enough to warrant patience, he launches into an extended claim that “privileged groups” will always oppose action that threatens the status quo. They will always consider attacks on their privilege as “untimely,” especially because groups have a tendency towards allowing immorality that individuals might oppose (173).
In particular, the black community has waited long enough. Dr. King insists that the black man has waited “more than 340 years” for justice, and he then launches into a litany of abuses that his people have suffered both over time and in his present day. Amongst these abuses is his experience explaining to his young daughter why she cannot go to the “public amusement park” because of her skin color. Because the black man has been pushed “into the abyss of despair,” Dr. King hopes that the clergymen will excuse his and his brethren’s impatience (173-174).
Dr. King then switches gears, noting that the clergymen are anxious over the black man’s “willingness to break laws.” He admits that his intention seems paradoxical, since he expects whites to follow laws that protect equality, while breaking others.
However, he then distinguishes between just and unjust laws, insisting that an individual has both a right and a responsibility to break unjust laws. He defines just laws as those that uphold human dignity, and unjust laws as those that “degrade human personality.” Unjust laws, he argues, hurt not only the oppressed, but also the oppressors, since they are given a false sense of superiority (175).
He then speaks specifically of segregation, describing it as unjust. Because it is a law that a majority forces the minority to follow while exempting itself from it, it is a law worth breaking. Further, because Alabama’s laws work to prohibit black citizens from fully participating in democracy, the laws are particularly unjust and undemocratic. Next, he adds that some just laws become unjust when they are misused. For instance, the law prohibiting “parading without a permit,” which he was arrested for breaking, is a just law that was used in this case solely to support the injustice of segregation (175-176).
Dr. King understands that flouting the law with wanton disregard would lead to “anarchy,” but he insists that he is willing to accept the penalty for his transgression. This distinction makes his civil disobedience just. He then provides a list of allusions that support his claim. To sum up his point on just and unjust laws, he notes that the laws of Nazi Germany allowed for Jewish persecution, and that he would have gladly broken those laws to support the oppressed class had he lived there (176).
The next topic Dr. King addresses is that of white moderates, who have greatly disappointed him. He argues that they value “order” over “justice,” and as a result have made it easier for the injustice of segregation to persist. He believes that moderates cannot distinguish between the nonviolent action and the violence of the oppressors. In particular, he is shocked that the clergymen would blame the black victims for the violence of segregation, as he believes they did in their open letter (177).
He further attacks moderates over their demands for patience. Moderates believe that time will get better if the oppressed blacks are patient, but Dr. King insists that “time itself is neutral” and that change only happens when good men take action (178).
He then addresses the clergymen's claim that SCLC action is “extreme.” Dr. King describes himself as standing between two opposing forces for black change. On one hand are the complacent blacks, who are either too demeaned to believe change possible or who have some modicum of success that they are unwilling to sacrifice for true equality. On the other hand are the more violent factions, exemplified by Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslim movement. Dr. King argues that he stands between these two extremes, offering a path towards nonviolent, loving protest. He implicitly warns that blacks will turn to the more violent option if Dr. King’s path is not favored by the population at large (179).
However, Dr. King goes further and proudly embraces the label of “extremist.” He argues that it is possible to be a “creative extremist” and provides a list of unimpeachable figures whom he considers extremists for positive causes. These include Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. Dr. King is disappointed that white moderates cannot distinguish between these types of extremism, but wonders whether whites can ever truly understand the disgrace that blacks have suffered in America (180).
He next lists a second disappointment, in the white church. Though he once expected the Southern church to be one of his movement’s primary allies, they have time and again either opposed his cause of remained “silent”, therefore facilitating injustice. Too many of the white church leaders have seen Civil Rights as a social movement, irrelevant to their church, but Dr. King believes this cowardice will eventually make their churches irrelevant unless they change. Whereas the church should be a force for change, a challenge to the status quo, it has become too comfortably a reflection of the prevailing conditions, a de facto supporter of those in power (181-182). Though these doubts make him pessimistic, Dr. King has found some hope in the whites who have joined his mission.
Further, Dr. King finds optimism when reflecting on the history of blacks in America. They have survived slavery and persisted towards freedom despite centuries of atrocities, and have in fact provided the center of American history.
Before closing, Dr. King addresses the clergymen’s commendation of the Birmingham police, whom they claim were admirably nonviolent when confronting the protests. Dr. King implies that the clergymen are ignorant of the abuses the clergymen used, but also insists that their “discipline,” their restraint from violence in public, does not make their actions just. Instead, they use that restraint to perpetuate injustice, which makes them reprehensible (184).
Dr. King is upset that the clergymen did not see fit to also commend the brave black people who have fought injustice nonviolently. Believing that history will ultimately show this latter group to be the real heroes of the age, he hopes the clergymen will eventually realize what is actually happening.
Finally, he apologizes for the length and potential overstatement of his letter, but hopes they will understand the forces that have led him to such certainty. He signs the letter, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood” (185).