When civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 12, 1963, for partaking in a march without a permit, he did not waste his time (King 1). Instead, King used all the material he could, including newspaper fields provided by his lawyer, and spent the week he was locked up formulating an eloquent and measured response to criticism from local clergy. By April 16, he drafted the so-called “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which reinforced public demonstrations against segregation. In the letter, King passionately opposed the idea of waiting patiently for social change to be enacted. Later published in The Atlantic, the article was seen as a cohesive call for activism at a critical time in history and as documentation of the movement itself.
The central ethical issue conveyed by the author of this letter is indisputably the problem of racial segregation of the black population. In the letter, King justifies the need for peaceful protests against the appalling injustices of a segregated society. The author uses real people’s examples to show how black people experience caustic injustice at the hands of whites every day. This is most evident in the inability to go to public places and the need to stay in designated areas, separate from the rest of the people (King 3). The clarity of the problem of segregation becomes especially poignant when King describes the motivations of people who have endured years of humiliation for their skin color. They have endured much hardship but still, find the strength to stand up for their unjustly taken rights.
The second ethical problem the author describes is the silence of the Orthodox Church and white people who support the abolition of segregation. In the letter, King expresses deep frustration at the church’s inaction, which was once the engine of social change but is now obediently silent in favor of the prevailing political discourse (King 5). Most Christian clergies allow blacks to serve, not out of deep respect for equality but blind obedience to the current leadership. The same is true of white citizens, who, while advocating the abolition of discrimination, still do not expect active action on the part of blacks in this area.
There were only two ways for the author to address these issues, either to become complacent and silent or to continue to be proactive. He chose the second path to pursue justice and equality, which he justifies in the letter under consideration. Martin Luther King Jr. could not have done otherwise, for as he writes, obeying unjust laws is a crime (King 3). Despite clashing with the opposition views of most white citizens, King urges blacks to continue to fight for their legal rights. He and his supporters were well aware of opposition from both society and the authorities. However, the great mission of liberating the oppressed called for active action.
His actions ultimately had the desired effect. Thanks to his active citizenship, more and more churches and whites became vocal about abolishing segregation. Black people, fearful for their rights, were inspired to pursue this difficult mission. In the end, the fact that racial segregation is virtually non-existent today is a great credit to this letter. First and foremost, it is the fact that people who previously remained silent and neutral have become shoulder-to-shoulder in the struggle for equal rights. Consequently, the ethical problems of segregation and the silencing of the problem began to be addressed, which in the end led to the democratic social order we know today.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”, 1963. Web.