Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the Importance of Letter From Birmingham Jail

By Allison Johnson
Assistant Web Content Manager

Today is an important day where we remember a man who spent his life dedicated to fighting injustice. His leadership during the civil rights movement set the example for how humans should combat an inhumane society. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of many peaceful tactics. Nonviolent protests, speeches and writing were some. If you’re not familiar with his influence through writing, here are some remarkable key points from the Letter From Birmingham Jail.

“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

I love this point! It’s crazy that during an ugly time oppressors felt that nonviolent protests created negative tension in their society. Like Jack White said, “you can’t take the effect, and make it the cause.” The direct cause of the awful tension was the treatment of African-Americans. Segregation, and even horrific events like Emmett Till, should have been something that oppressors deemed as bad tension. Evil acts like that added fuel to the fire, but what Martin Luther King Jr. did was not fight fire with fire.

“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.'”

MLK Jr.used a lot of rhetorical devices to convey his arguments. He often used biblical references or historical figures. In this letter, he is writing to clergymen. The clergymen referred to MLK Jr. as an outsider and said that his protest was unwise and untimely. During this time, many oppressors felt like they were doing the right thing unfortunately. Oppressors were defending the roles they played during times like this. MLK could not have put it better than using this example. What a better way to remind Christians that they’re on the wrong side than to remind them that Christians were once treated the same way they’re treating African-Americans?

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

MLK Jr. called out many people in this letter. He’s disappointed in the African-Americans that conformed to segregation. He’s also frustrated with the moderate whites. “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action..” Support from the group stuck in the middle could have made a difference. The moderate whites were often educated people who had a voice to address change, but didn’t. I’m glad MLK Jr. called out this group, because we’re all guilty of being on this side.

Whether it’s standing up for the injustice women face, LGBT or any kind of group being oppressed, it’s important that we acknowledge whatever tension it may cause. Some of it can be bad tension, but most of the time, it’s good tension so we can start a conversation that will lead to peaceful change.

Featured image via Wikipedia.

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