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Martin Luther King and Civil Disobedience - Example Historical Analysis Paper

Several decades after his death, Martin Luther King Jr.'s words still resonate with meaning. This example Civil Rights era paper analyzes King's arguments in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see how he tried to win over white, moderate pastors to join the Civil Rights movement. This sample primary source document analysis essay examines why King believes civil disobedience is the correct way to bring about change in the face of racism. It would be a good reference for a student who wants to write an in-depth analysis of a historical document.

King's Declaration of Independence: Justifying Civil Disobedience

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself locked in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell for leading nonviolent protests across the segregated city. While there, King penned his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to a group of white, moderate pastors, to convince them why his acts of civil disobedience were legitimate. King argues that nonviolent protests would lead to negotiation, bring racial harmony to the divided city and finally give African Americans the rights they have wanted so long.

At the time of King's writing, Birmingham was a symbol of racial inequality. King describes it as the "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States" with an "ugly record of brutality" (King 1). In this city, African Americans are not safe, because their homes and churches are being bombed (1). Along the city streets, merchants hang "humiliating racial signs" (2) from their shop windows and only pretend to take them down when complaints arise. Finally, the Birmingham police force, which is supposed to serve and protect its citizens, allows racism in Birmingham to flourish. King explains that the police treat blacks like animals:

I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together (9).

Indeed, King argues that the police force's actions are only preserving "the evil system of segregation" (9) in Birmingham not "'keeping "order"' and '"preventing violence,"' (9) as the white pastors suggest. With little support from city leaders, King and other civil rights leaders realized that it was time for civil disobedience.

King justifies his nonviolent protests by saying they will lead to negotiations with Birmingham's leaders. Although the white pastors question why King does not use regular negotiation tactics, King explains that civil disobedience - breaking laws that are considered unjust - is necessary because previous diplomatic attempts have failed. King notes that when the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to stop protesting in exchange for merchants removing their racist signs, the merchants soon reneged on their agreement. This betrayal caused a "shadow of deep disappointment" (2) to descend on the black populace. While King is sorry that the disruptive protests are taking place in Birmingham, he says that "it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative" (1). Determined to change the way Birmingham treats African Americans, King is willing to raise tensions among its citizens. He says the friction he hopes to cause is a "type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth" (2). Indeed, King hopes that his protests will force the white moderate to realize that segregation only harms the city and thus negotiate with King and other blacks. In this way, civil disobedience "seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored" (5). When the moderates realize that segregation is evil, King believes they will work with him to "help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood" (2).

To convince white moderates that civil disobedience is a noble cause, King explains in his Letter that his racial protests will ultimately bring racial harmony to Birmingham and the nation. He dismisses the notion that civil disobedience will precipitate violence - "Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?" (5) King asks. He describes himself as a mediator, one who stands between the "'do nothingism' of the complacent" and the "hatred and despair of the black nationalist" (6). Furthermore, King points out that he has "earnestly opposed violent tension" (2) and that his group seeks racial harmony. In contrast, black nationalists embody forces of "bitterness and hatred" (6) and come "perilously close to advocating violence" (6). In fact, King feels that if nonviolent demonstrations had not developed, "many streets of the South would . . .be flowing with blood" (6) because black Americans would have had no other outlet to express their dismay with the system. Unfortunately, many whites were reluctant to accept change. "The Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice," (5) King said. He explains that by keeping a system of segregation intact, whites will only inviting more disruptions:

And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as "rabble rousers" and "outside agitators" those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare (6).

For King, the only way Birmingham and the nation can be healed is if all men - black and white - understand that humanity is moving towards a time of "substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality" (5). But this objective can only be achieved through civil disobedience.

King argues that now is the time for black Americans to seize their God-given rights. Although some whites, including the pastors King is writing to, have told him to be patient, he responds with, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait'" (3). Indeed, King says his people have waited more than "340 years for our constitutional and God given rights" yet are only creeping "at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter" (3). He mentions that even in 20th century America, blacks face constant degradation, from sleeping "night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you" to having their first names reduced to "nigger" (3). He fears that waiting longer will affect a new generation of African Americans, as black children who cannot go to white theme parks form "ominous clouds of inferiority" and distort their personalities "by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people" (3). King sees that the black community is fed up: "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair," (3) he writes. For King, the time for change is now: "When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait," (3) he says. Nearly broken, the only way blacks can fight back is by defying segregation rules. "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws," (3) King says, citing Saint Thomas Aquinas. He believes that by resisting Birmingham's racist environment, blacks can "lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity" (5). Although some may view him as an extremist, King does not mind the title. He calls Jesus Christ "an extremist for love, truth and goodness," and that "perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists," (6) to bring humanity forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail attacks the idea that staying neutral in the racial conflict will not harm anyone. Modern readers can see that by avoiding conflict, the white moderate only made the situation worse for black Americans. Reading King's work now should inspire those who care about humanity to speak against injustice - for this man went to jail and later died fighting for his beliefs.

Works Cited
King Jr., Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. African Study Center - University of Pennsylvania. 26 November 2008. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
1,328 words / 5 pages

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