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“Letter From Birmingham Jail” Is Addressed To Several Clergymen

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“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is addressed to several clergymen who had written an open letter criticizing the actions of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during their protests in Birmingham. Dr. King tells the clergymen that he was upset about their criticisms, and that he wishes to address their concerns. First, he notes their claim that he is an “outsider” who has come to Birmingham to cause trouble. He defends his right to be there in a straightforward, unemotional tone, explaining that the SCLC is based in Atlanta but operates throughout the South. One of its affiliates had invited the organization to Birmingham, which is why they came. However, he then provides a moral reason for his presence, saying…show more content…
In particular, the black community has waited long enough. Dr. King insists that the black man has waited “more than 340 years” for justice, and he then launches into a litany of abuses that his people have suffered both over time and in his present day. Amongst these abuses is his experience explaining to his young daughter why she cannot go to the “public amusement park” because of her skin color. Because the black man has been pushed “into the abyss of despair,” Dr. King hopes that the clergymen will excuse his and his brethren’s impatience. Dr. King then switches gears, noting that the clergymen are anxious over the black man’s “willingness to break laws.” He admits that his intention seems paradoxical, since he expects whites to follow laws that protect equality, while breaking others. However, he then distinguishes between just and unjust laws, insisting that an individual has both a right and a responsibility to break unjust laws. He defines just laws as those that uphold human dignity, and unjust laws as those that “degrade human personality.” Unjust laws, he argues, hurt not only the oppressed, but also the oppressors, since they are given a false sense of superiority. He then speaks specifically of segregation, describing it as unjust. Because it is a law that a majority forces the minority to follow while exempting itself from it, it is a law worth breaking. Further, because Alabama’s laws work to prohibit
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