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Importance of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

One of the most important letters written in this country’s history was Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” On April 12, 1963, Dr. King, along with Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, were arrested and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail. As a result of his arrest, a number of white clergy members decided to chastise Dr. King for his participation in what they considered unlawful acts. In their correspondence to King under the title, “Call for Unity,” they further argued that a man of the cloth should not encourage and lead such demonstrations, especially in the streets, and that Black Americans should wait patiently and allow the battles to be fought in the courts.King responded to their concerns (I am being kind when I refer to them as concerns and not charges). In his usual non-confrontation style, he suggested that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws through direct action. He also pointed out that there is a vast difference between laws and justice through equality. This was one of the most important clarifications that he made. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it only addressed the issue of freedom. However, it failed to assure equality for all others, as expressed in the United States Constitution. What King was telling these ministers is that freedom without equality is not freedom at all. It would take 100 years to correct that omission deliberately done when Lincoln allegedly freed the slaves. There is …

One of the most important letters written in this country’s history was Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” On April 12, 1963, Dr. King, along with Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, were arrested and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail. As a result of his arrest, a number of white clergy members decided to chastise Dr. King for his participation in what they considered unlawful acts. In their correspondence to King under the title, “Call for Unity,” they further argued that a man of the cloth should not encourage and lead such demonstrations, especially in the streets, and that Black Americans should wait patiently and allow the battles to be fought in the courts.

King responded to their concerns (I am being kind when I refer to them as concerns and not charges). In his usual non-confrontation style, he suggested that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws through direct action. He also pointed out that there is a vast difference between laws and justice through equality. This was one of the most important clarifications that he made. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it only addressed the issue of freedom. However, it failed to assure equality for all others, as expressed in the United States Constitution. 

What King was telling these ministers is that freedom without equality is not freedom at all. It would take 100 years to correct that omission deliberately done when Lincoln allegedly freed the slaves. There is very little doubt that Lincoln never meant for Black Americans to be on an equal footing with whites. He believed that the United States was specifically a white country and even considered the possibility of exporting Black residents to Liberia. If not assassinated, there is the extreme possibility he would have implemented that plan during his second administration.

From the years after Reconstruction, 1876, to the present, it has been an ongoing battle for Black Americans to be treated on an equal basis with others. Recently, there has been an attempt to limit the equal treatment of Black Americans. The firing of President Claudine Gay at Harvard University is an example of that attempt. The firing of San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood is another example. 

The greatest threat facing Blacks in this country is the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the Presidency and the domination of the right-wing Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It becomes even more daunting when you read that a growing number of Black Americans support Trump and the right-wing Republicans and, in essence, support their own demise. The battle for equality in this country may not be quite as apparent as during the Civil Rights Movement. However, it still exists, and there needs to be a resurgence of the determination of men like Dr. King to prevent this potential catastrophe. 



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