American government often changes because
a political issue or social condition is protested publicly. Americans
have a long tradition of gathering at city hall or the steps of
Congress to demonstrate for or against an idea.
One of the most important movements in the United States has been
for civil rights — economic, political and social equality for African-Americans
and other minorities. In the 1960s much of the momentum for the
civil rights movement came from public demonstrations. Demonstrators
were often jailed for disturbing the peace and similar offenses.
In one such case in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others
were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. King and the others were strongly
criticized. Eight Birmingham clergymen wrote a letter to express
their criticism. This letter appeared as a paid advertisement in
a Birmingham newspaper.
King wrote a letter that explained his reasons for rallying local
residents to demonstrate against segregation. As King relates, his
response to the eight clergymen was “begun on the margins of the
newspaper in which the statement appeared while [he] was in jail,
… continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro
trusty, and concluded on a pad [his] attorneys were eventually permitted
to leave [him].”
As you read the portions of King’s
letter, try to decide why he and others used protest methods
they knew were likely to send them to jail. Then, based on what
you have read and what you know of the civil rights movement in
the 1960s, answer the following questions:
- What guarantees in the First Amendment are relevant to King’s
protest actions? Explain why.
- When King referred to “constitutional and God-given rights,”
what do you think he meant?
- What did King hope to accomplish by demonstrating publicly?
- King wrote that he had “no alternative” but to demonstrate.
Explain why he reached that conclusion.
- Instead of demonstrations, what alternatives would his critics
- Conflicts of values are inevitable. What are some of the values
that were confronted in civil rights protests? Which of King’s
values were in conflict with values of those who criticized him?
- In the face of large demonstrations, what were the legal responsibilities
of the Birmingham police? How can police tell the difference between
lawful protest and unruly or dangerous gatherings?
- King gave direct evidence for “unavoidable impatience.” What
are his examples?
- According to King, what is a “just law”? an “unjust law”?
- What laws and social conditions did King want to change?
- What is a “moderate”? What is an “extremist”?
Use these four questions for a more in-depth study of King’s use
- Consider King’s audience. Why was it important for King to include
the churches’ response to the freedom movement and biblical allusions?
- Which shared values did King use to convince his critics of
the rightness of his position?
- How was his argument strengthened through references to St.
Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Buber?
- In addition to concrete language, King used allusion and figurative
language. Was his use of allusion persuasive when he used examples
of “an extremist”? Give examples of figurative language. How is
this a useful rhetorical device?
Concepts Found in “Letter from Birmingham
Educators, for your assistance, the following list specifies the
major concepts covered in Questions.
- The First Amendment guarantees rights to the demonstrators:
- Free expression of religion. King believed blacks had been
denied their “God-given rights.”
- Freedom of speech. King publicly called for civil rights
at the demonstrations.
- Freedom of assembly. King organized the demonstrations.
- Freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.
- This was one goal of King’s protest.
- When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refers to "God-given rights,"
he is referring to inalienable rights, those rights that the government
does not define or create. Rights such as life, liberty and happiness
are considered inalienable. Constitutional rights are established
by federal and state constitutions and refined through legislation.
These rights include voting rights, equal protection of the laws
and due process. In America a special group of rights exists that
are both constitutional and inalienable. For more than 200 years,
United States citizens have relied on the First Amendment to prevent
government interference with the inalienable rights and freedoms
of belief and expression.
- Time was part of his argument. Blacks had been told many times
to wait for change, which never happened. King was demanding freedom
and justice “too long denied.” Note his use of “wait,” “patient”
and “unavoidable impatience.” The demonstrations were demanding
- King was educating the clergy and public through this letter.
He was trying to let people everywhere know what conditions blacks
faced in their lives. He wanted to show how his protests were
related to the rights others already enjoyed. He also said freedom
is never given by oppressors unless the oppressed demand it.
- King acknowledged the importance of maintaining law and order,
and protecting the public from disturbances and violence. Patience
and waiting, negotiation and other less vocal, less public actions
like letters to the editor or lobbying city councils or legislatures
have all been tried. They had no recourse but nonviolent direct
- King was willing to take the legal consequences of nonviolent
direct action. Often a permit is required to preserve free speech
and to ensure public safety at large assemblies. Without a permit
the gathering may be unlawful. Protests that experience suggests
may lead to unlawful acts, such as rioting, arson
or physical violence, are also subject to tight restrictions.
Emotional demonstrations may start out lawful, but turn dangerous.
The police must judge how the participants and observers are behaving,
and suppress speech only if it is likely to incite immediate lawless
behavior. The basic principle involved is to find a way to allow
speech and assembly to happen rather than to stop the expression.
- The urgency of blacks’ demands for equality was in conflict
with the belief in slow change.
- King never forgets his primary audience — “my Christian and
Jewish brothers,” clergy from Roman Catholic, Jewish and different
Protestant traditions. There was more to unite than to separate
them. In his conclusion he refers to the “disinherited children
of God,” “sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage,” “great
wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers”
and “strong in the faith.” King felt both sides respected the
law, though he felt compelled to break “unjust laws.” He was a
“fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”