Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr. writes "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to criticisms he has received from other religious leaders in the South. The leaders, which include white Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis, have condemned his actions as extremist and violence provoking. King responds by detailing the four basic steps of nonviolent action: "collection of facts to determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action." Since King and the other black religious leaders have already been through the first three steps, nonviolent direct action was the necessary next step. He insists that action is required to bring the issues of segregation to the forefront of society so negotiation must occur.

After defending his own actions by referencing a myriad of Christian figures who were also thought to be "extremists" in their time, King goes on to talk about the two groups in which he is sorely disappointed: the white moderate and the white Southern religious leaders. He feels that both of them are too tied to the current status quo to make any reasonable effort toward change. Interestingly, King laments that the inextricable ties between the status quo and organized religion may prevent white Christians from ever ending segregation. Finally, he ends his letter with the utmost confidence in the success of his movement when he says, "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."

Martin Luther King, Jr. finds himself in the difficult--but not unprecedented in Christianity--position of having to lead from prison. In his letter he draws the obvious connection between himself and Paul as two men who tried to head a movement without their physical presence. King's letter differs dramatically from Paul's letters, though, because Paul wrote directly to his followers, while King is writing to his critics. Although it may not represent our typical picture of leadership, King does his best to defend the actions of his fellow protestors. He gives analogies from Christian history, from the Old Testament through the 19th Century, that suggest that he and those supporting him are in the right. Although his efforts may be futile, King tries to show these other religious leaders the error of their ways and get them to join his cause. The positivity and conviction with which he writes are invaluable characteristics of any good leader.

King's letter provides a microcosm for the desegregation movement as a whole. When faced with criticism and adversity, he calmly and patiently points out the errors being made and suggests ways that these errors may be corrected. The tact and reason that he shows in his letter mirrors the nonviolent and just method of protest that he promotes. In this case, form and function go hand in hand beautifully, a fact not lost on a man like Martin Luther King, Jr. He realizes that he has an opportunity to provide an example for his people of the way he wants them to respond in the face of adversity. In a way, even though he the letter is addressed to the white religious leaders, he is actually talking to his followers. King is telling them to resist injustice peacefully and rationally, in the same way that he is.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, MLK’s writing about leadership here takes the form of a counterargument. To my mind, that is the best sort of prompt. The best offense is a brilliant defense. (As you know.) You are right that he begins by putting himself in the Christian context. This is sincere (theologically speaking) but it’s also a great smart strategy. If the racist sheriffs of the South suppress a Christian movement, it will look very bad. (This is an understatement.) You’re right that it isn’t a typical picture of leadership: for one thing, in the Christian context and the context of passive resistance, it all seems actually non-leaderly – reticent, quiet. That’s the brilliant thing about it. You should seriously consider what this model of leadership means. It’s not typical and is most effective. “Form and function go hand in hand.” That’s the point exactly! His prose is repetitive and impatient, and that’s his point. The best offense is a brilliant defense.