Letter from Birmingham Jail | Study Guide

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Letter from Birmingham Jail | Context

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Segregation in the United States

Segregation is the purposeful separation of two or more groups. In the United States, this term is most often used to refer to racial segregation, which separates people based on their race or ethnicity. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed the slaves, and the end of the Civil War in 1865, slavery in the southern states separated blacks and whites into two different classes. Prior to the Civil War, even poor whites in the South were afforded all the rights stipulated in the Constitution, but African Americans, even those who were free, were denied education, voting rights, and the right to assemble. Even after the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, granted citizenship to African Americans, and guaranteed all males of any race the right to vote, respectively, blacks were still treated like second-class citizens. Much of this discrimination was because of the continuing perception that blacks were inferior to whites and whites' fear their supposed superiority was being challenged by black citizenship.

To maintain the status quo, many communities enacted laws prohibiting blacks from using "white" facilities and services, including restrooms, schools, and transportation. Such legislation—referred to as Jim Crow laws—conflicted with the constitutional amendments granting full rights to blacks. Nonetheless the Supreme Court of the late 19th century ruled time and again in favor of these practices. The most notable case was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court sanctioned separate facilities for whites and blacks as long as the facilities were of equal quality.

The theory of "separate but equal" didn't match the reality. Black families in 17 states and Washington, D.C., had no option but to settle for the rundown, overcrowded schools assigned to them by white government leaders. Black children received substandard education and far fewer opportunities for advancement than their white peers. Segregation also negatively impacted black children's self-esteem and sense of worth. In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—a group focused on ensuring the social, political, financial, and educational equality of blacks in American society—turned its attention to the disparities in public education caused by segregation. A series of five lawsuits brought by NAACP lawyers against school districts in Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., resulted in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision—making segregation illegal in public schools and universities.

School integration wasn't automatically accepted in the South. The first black children sent to traditionally white schools were confronted by angry protestors. To ensure the safety of the black students, many had to be escorted by law enforcement officers to and from class. Progress was slow; in 1958 seven southern states still had statutes prohibiting the integration of schools. However, the initial steps in school desegregation paved the way for resistance in other areas, including transportation. Montgomery, Alabama, resident Rosa Parks was riding a city bus on December 1, 1955, when she was arrested because she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Local activists called for a boycott of the Montgomery transit system. Their elected leader was minister and Montgomery resident Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

King was a natural choice for the leadership role in Montgomery's bus boycott. King had many personal and professional connections throughout the southern black Church community, and he was respected as both a citizen and spiritual leader. King also had the advantage of being relatively new to town. He hadn't had time to make any enemies, and nobody had reason to dislike him. The boycott lasted 381 days, during which time local black citizens and white supporters refused to use the local bus system. Transit revenue dropped, as did the income of downtown merchants whose businesses were adversely affected by the decrease in bus riders. The boycott ended in December 1956 when a Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public buses went into effect.

With his gift for public speaking and his instinct for delivering the right message to the right audience, King became one of the leading voices in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Following the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was created to champion the civil rights of all Americans. The group's primary concern was ending segregation. Unlike more radical groups, King and the SCLC advocated nonviolent protest to effect change. This moderate stance gained King admirers and supporters among both blacks and whites, including many in the Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy presidential administrations. Though thousands were fighting for the same cause, King soon became the civil rights movement's most well-known face and voice.

The Birmingham Campaign

King's leadership role in the SCLC took him across the country and around the world as he gave speeches and met with international leaders to discuss human rights. He also represented the SCLC in local matters that had the potential to become national news. In 1963 he was invited to Birmingham, Alabama, by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (1922–2011), who was leading a group of citizens in protest of the city's enforcement of segregation. Race relations in Birmingham were notoriously poor, and city Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor (1897–1973)—along with other city officials—took an actively segregationist stance regarding the use of public facilities—including schools, transportation, and even department store lunch counters. Shuttlesworth's previous attempts to address integration in Birmingham resulted in several threats on his life and the lives of his family. He needed King's involvement to attract national attention to racism in Birmingham.

The Birmingham Campaign had originally been scheduled for early March so its sit-ins and protests would disrupt the Easter shopping season—which could strike a major blow to the city's retail economy. Organizers decided, however, to delay their activities until April 3 to avoid conflict with the mayoral election scheduled for April 2. This election was especially important to local civil rights activists because staunch segregationist Eugene Connor was on the ballot. The Birmingham Campaign commenced after his defeat by the moderate—but still racist—Albert Boutwell (1904–78). Activists led marches on city halls, held lunch counter sit-ins, and organized boycotts of downtown merchants. King held public meetings designed to encourage members of the black community to join the cause. Momentum built little by little, and nonviolent protests popped up all across the city, including "kneel-ins" at churches and a drive to register voters at the county building.

Under pressure to crush the protests, city officials obtained an injunction from a state circuit court designed to put an end to the campaign. Anyone found in violation of the injunction would be arrested. After much debate, campaign leaders decided the best course of action would be to continue the protests and risk arrest. There was further debate about King's ongoing role. The group had no money for bail, and as King was their best means for raising money it made sense to keep him out of jail. Yet he ultimately determined he would be most effective to the cause if he was incarcerated. On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, he was arrested and placed in a cell at the Birmingham City Jail.

Reaction of White Religious Leaders to King's Efforts

That same day, an open letter to King from eight white Alabama clergymen—Charles "C.J." Carpenter, George Murray, Nolan Harmon, Paul Hardin, Joseph Durick, Earl Stallings, Edward Ramage, and Milton Grafman—was published in the Birmingham News. As representatives of the Episcopal, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and Jewish faiths, the eight leaders called for black citizens to disassociate themselves from King and the nonviolent protests taking place in Birmingham.

Recent interviews with surviving relatives of these leaders indicate many, if not all, of them supported integration. Their letter to King disputes not his goal of desegregation, but rather his method for achieving it. The letter ambiguously mentions an "opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems." They feared King's nonviolent protest would "incite ... hatred and violence" instead of solving the problems at hand. They favored negotiation over protest and believed social change would come through the "proper channels"—namely, the court system. Moreover, they felt King, a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, had no right to involve himself in Birmingham's local affairs.

A friend of King's smuggled a copy of the Birmingham News to him, and after reading the clergymen's letter, King began composing his response. Lacking pen and paper, King used a pencil to jot his ideas wherever he could—in the newspaper's margins, on toilet paper, and on scraps of paper passed to him by a friend. His lawyers were eventually allowed to provide King with a notepad. They delivered the segments of the essay to King's associate Reverend Wyatt Walker, who had the monumental task of piecing together and editing King's thoughts into a single document. The final version of the letter was completed on April 16, 1963. Distribution began with mimeographed sheets of paper that were soon replaced by more official-looking pamphlets. The press picked up the story, and King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" appeared in newspapers across the nation on May 19, 1963, and was also published in the August 1963 issue of The Atlantic.

Black Nationalism

King was certainly not the only leader advocating for black equality, although his method of nonviolence was unique. When he defends his actions from the accusation of being "extreme," King talks about a "force ... of bitterness and hatred" that "comes perilously close to advocating violence." He is referencing another major civil rights advocate in America, the black nationalists. In general, black nationalism refers to a number of movements, both in the United States and abroad, that advocate for equality through nonassimilation. In other words, they suggest that blacks should rediscover and embrace their African heritage and identity while advocating for full equality in their present social situation.

In the United States, the most virulent strain of black nationalism was the Nation of Islam (NOI), an African American ideological movement not affiliated with the Islamic religion. Both American religious activists Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X received their formative training in the NOI under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, although both later left to form their own splinter groups. The NOI has led a controversial and fractured history and has been designated as a black supremacist hate group by the nonprofit civil rights legal center the Southern Poverty Law Center. It advocates clean living, and many of its members quit smoking, drinking, and eating pork as they reform their lives, often while rehabilitating from the prison system.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the NOI was growing rapidly, largely under the charismatic influence of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was a vocal critic of King's nonviolent strategies, believing they were too pacifistic and slow to solve the problems of the blacks in the South. Ultimately, the NOI never had the organized leadership to mount a significant challenge to King's nonviolent strategy of peaceful resistance, but at the time of King's letter the small, destructive riots they were enacting occasionally throughout the country were striking fear into the hearts of blacks and whites alike.

Impact of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

The effect of King's letter on the civil rights movement became apparent within a few days after his release from jail on April 20, 1963. King galvanized congregants as he preached part of the letter at a local Birmingham church. His disappointment in the response of white moderates to segregation's inequalities spurred African Americans to join the campaign for civil rights. On May 2 more than 1,000 Birmingham children skipped school to march in the Children's Crusade, which made national headlines when Birmingham police officers turned hoses and attack dogs on the minors and accompanying adults. Photographs of the melee brought attention to King's letter, which led to its widespread national publication.

The pairing of King's words with pictures of the brutal end to the Children's Crusade gave King and other civil rights leaders the momentum for progress on the national stage. On August 28, 1963, a crowd estimated at 250,000 people took part in the March on Washington. There, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. King's voice and image were broadcast around the world, and his subsequent meetings with President Kennedy (1917–63) and Vice President Johnson (1908–73) helped influence passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In addition to its lasting social and political impact, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" also made its mark as a work of literature. King was commonly known as a magnificent speaker, but he was also a highly skilled writer. The restrictions of writing from his jail cell meant King's elegant and persuasive essay was composed entirely without notes or reference materials, a skillful demonstration of his powerful memory and facility with numerous texts, ranging from the Bible to ancient Greek and modern German philosophy. His voice reaches a multitude of audiences, from academics familiar with the ideas of Greek philosopher Socrates and Catholic priest St. Thomas Aquinas to factory workers with rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. More than 50 years after its publication, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is considered one of the greatest persuasive essays of all time.

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