The Highest Standard

The Reverend Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was required reading in all of my composition classes for twenty years.  My students and I read it, argued about it, learned from it and, I hope, grew from the experience.  So much reason and eloquence is packed into these pages that it is hard to believe King truly was sitting in a jail cell as he wrote the original letter.  That original draft was indeed changed for formal publication but, despite the changes, the power of the letter remains.  No matter which version one happens to read, he or she must still receive the impression of a man composing, thinking aloud, and releasing all of his thoughts of many years into this one letter.  Few documents in our history–the Declaration of Independence, F.D.R.’s declaration of war upon Japan, a couple of others, perhaps–have emerged from such extraordinary public pressure as King’s letter did.  Arrested on the march as he was, the jail time gave him a unique opportunity to explain the logic and the passion behind the Civil Rights Movement to the clergymen who had published their own letter in opposition to it, and to the Black Muslim movement, which was advocating violence to achieve social and political freedom for blacks.  He knew he dare not waste that opportunity.

He didn’t waste it.  King shreds the shallow arguments upon which the clergymen stand, one by one, rejecting identification as “outside agitators,” explaining the “creative tension” of social protest, destroying the notion of a “seasonable time” for social progress, and expounding the necessity to oppose and, when necessary, break immoral laws.  He uses both logic and an appeal to authority that his entire audience of readers–both white and black–could not fail to see, even if they were not entirely ready to accept them.  If you wish to find an example of how to make an argument, there is no finer example than this letter.  It upholds the highest standard that reason and persuasion can reach.  You will find your own favorite passages as you read King’s words, but these have lived in me for a long time:

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country. …”

“Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote despite the fact that the Negro constitutes a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?”

“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

“Never before have I written a letter this long or should I say a book? I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”


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