The purpose of this essay paper is to examine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The paper will examine parts of King as a preacher as well as an advocate for Civil Rights. His use of dictation and dialogue to the people will be a major point in this paper. Not only will King’s writing present the inner teachings of King’s strive for equality among all people and the way in which humanity suffers but the predicament of racism during the Civil Right’s Movement will also be a major theme in this paper as it applies to King’s work.
By indicating that he is a “fellow clergyman”, King tells the members of the local parishes that they should respect him. King calls the other clergymen “men of genuine good” and calls their intentions sincere. This is to set his argument as one of discourse, rather than an attack.
King tells of his position to indicate his reasoning for being in Alabama. It is his duty to see that all Southern states are represented by the conference. The rationale behind the current War on Terror follows this motif. Between the negotiations and the demonstrations, King began a series of workshops on non-violence. Then he followed that by a Christmas season boycott of local stores. “Justice too long delayed, is justice denied” is the most personally inspiring pathos King included here. This simple phrase sums the whole of the civil rights movement.
A white moderate is a person of Caucasian descent who is “more concerned with order than justice.” King finds fault in their logic. He feels that they are deluded into believing that stability of society is safer than justice for all people. They believe that “the Negro should wait” for a better time to assert their rights. King also feels that “lukewarm acceptance is much more frustrating than outright rejection.”
Another group that disappoints King is the white Christians who fail to support his efforts. King was disappointed that his non-violent efforts were seen as extremist actions. He also felt disappointed with is inability to motivate the white Christians to his cause.
Because the modern manifestation of the Christian church had lost its sacrificial nature and its authenticity. The early days of the American Civil Rights movement were days of non-violent protests. The simple acts, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Marches, used large numbers of Black Americans in ways that affected the white establishment economically and morally to achieve change. However, as the movement went on, increasing numbers of Black Americans began to become disenfranchised with the non-violence, and almost placating nature of the movement under Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
This feeling of powerlessness led to the formation of a more militant movement. The birth of the Black Panthers, and other Black Power organizations, came from frustration at the slowness of change seen through the non-violent protests as well as from the emerging black identity of strength, confidence and power.
The other influence which created the Black Power movement was the understanding of many black American youth, that the deaths of African-Americans meant nothing to the American population as a whole. The deaths of many blacks, directly resulting from racial murders and revenge for Civil Rights protests, garnered next to no reaction from the public at large. In contrast, the deaths of white Americans, even if suspected to be by a black man, would create mass outrage.
King was troubled by the clergy’s praising of the Birmingham Police for “keeping order”. However, with the dogs attacking the non-violent protestors, King felt that they should have instead commented on the “Negro sit-Inners”. This disproportionate standard nurtured a feeling that without strong leadership, and defense, the black man would lose the escalating war for civil liberties. While the motives and actions of the nationwide Student Non-violent Coordination Committee saw small victories throughout the country, its lack of firm power at local levels left many, especially non-student American blacks, without a cause to follow.
The growing feeling of separation within the Civil Rights movement itself began to cause stratification within the movement. The emergence of SNCC leader, Stokely Carmichael, was the first major break within the SNCC. Carmichael, as described by Allen Matusow, was “[h]andsome, volatile, eloquent and fearless [and] became a magnet in the SNCC for the militant and proto-nationalists”. (Matusow 1984, 352) The rise of Carmichael was solidified, when in May of 1966, Carmichael and his adherents successfully took over the SNCC from its former, and far more docile leader John Lewis. This allowed for Carmichael to issue the call for all “black Americans to begin building independent political, economic and cultural institutions that will control and use as instruments of social chance in this country”. (Matusow 354)
The many and diverse organizations that were created during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, each, in their own ways, effected the outcome of that decade. Some of the organizations based their philosophies on empowerment, others on revenge, and still others on the legal advocacy of oppressed individuals. However, one group, in particular, was involved in the most trying and violent events of the movement – and maintained their stand for non-violent protest to effect change.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. The organization functioned as “as an umbrella organization of affiliates, rather than seeking individual membership”. (King Encyclopedia) This allowed the SCLC to gain influence in multiple states. King used the ability of the SCLC to enter the fray of Birmingham Alabama in 1963.
The union of blacks churches throughout the Southern States, allowed for a strong base of support for King’s non-violent confrontation of the white establishment. Though his work would see him arrested, and many of his fellow protestors beaten, injured and even hospitalized, the basic ideal of the SCLC never wavered.
During the height of the civil rights movement, the rise of the concept of Black Power – a more militant and empowered movement – began to take hold in many American cities. The direct assault on the established power of white America that the Black Panther Party promised influenced many young blacks to follow their ideology. This became a struggling point for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in that their strict adherence to the non-violent messages of Martin Luther King Jr. were increasingly being seen as weak. Also, the dependence that the SCLC had on the white churches of the South was also seen as a problem point for many in the movement.
Despite the hurdles that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was forced to confront, they ideology of King’s vision was maintained – even after his assassination. The death of King was a strong blow against the organization. The momentum that the group had gained under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr. was stalled and the group nearly imploded.
However, the words of King lived on through his death. In his final speech, the evening before his murder, King rallied the minds and emotions of his followers. The words of the speech, which came to be known as the “Promised Land” speech, spoke of his eventual death. Through his final words, King told his followers that the life of a man is meaningless without that man having lived up to his potential.
The work of King, and the SCLC, continues to this day. And though, there are organizations which are more recognized, such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference confronted the face of oppression directly, and without violent retaliation. The ability for the organization to achieve its goals, and see the world that King envisioned, allows them to be seen as the most effective of the era.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. April 16, 1963.
“Southern Christian Leadership Conference: SCLC”. The King Encyclopedia. The King Center. Date of Access: March 30, 2006.
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