It was at his bleak hour in jail when Martin Luther king junior chanced to come across an open letter addressed to him by some clergy leaders from Birmingham. He was in jail after launching a public action without a permit as the law required. The clergy was criticizing his advocacy for racial injustice as “unwise and untimely” (Luther 1). It was the weight of this letter that stirred his mind to respond to the clergy with sharp yet mild bristles of his genius.
He composed a lengthy letter in a full week on toilet papers and scrap newspapers; yet, the wording of the letter is full of hope, faith and love. The king’s cry for justice through nonviolent means is expressed eloquently with reasonable and passionate voice that leaves three issues firmly engraved in our minds: nonviolence, civil disobedience and the church. This paper evaluates Luther’s justification for civil disobedience and nonviolence.
We start by asking ourselves, is civil disobedience ever necessary or valuable? Most people are always for the idea that we must always obey laws for peace to prevail. Laws are made by men who ought to be knowledgeable and who possess objective purposes in a society. Since laws are supposed to guide all members of a society, then they are deemed to cater at least for the interest of both minority and majority members.
In the making of the same laws therefore, all members are supposed to be involved in representing their interest. As Martin Luther king justifies “‘any law that degrades human personality is unjust’ and segregation law is so because ‘it distorts the soul and damages the personality’ by imposing a false superiority mentality on the segregator, and imprinting false inferiority complex on the segregated” (Luther 3).
Luther argues that, in the making of segregation law, there was no representation for the Negros and it cannot be said that there was democracy (Luther 1). Since this law was born of ill motives; by one race to peripherize another on social, political and economic grounds, it is “out of harmony with the moral law” and thus unjust (Luther 3).
Therefore, any just law has a right to be obeyed because it is able to justify that it deserves such an adherence and on the other hand, an immoral action cannot be justified no matter how many followers it garners. For instance; the law to acquire a permit; which Martin Luther disobeyed, looked just on the face but in its application it was used to preserve the very act of segregation by denying a “privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest” (Luther 3).
Therefore, the legal nature of an action cannot make it just and moral and this is where Martin Luther gives the strongest example to prove his point that in Germany, all what Hitler did was backed by law (Luther 3). He is trying to put across the point that, law is not always moral as some people would think and it takes faith, wisdom and open-mindedness to discern this fact. It is therefore sometimes necessary to disobey civil laws that are unjust and this comes with great value if such laws are lifted in favor of humanistic considerations.
Therefore, if civil disobedience is necessary, can it ever improve a climate of injustice? Long history of human relation teaches us that injustice is almost present everywhere but it takes sacrifice to eradicate it. First, the letter states that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” (Luther 4).
Luther stated the fact that in an oppressed society, there are complacent people who benefit from their own people being oppressed. There are also people who experience the pain of the oppression and want to act radically, but in the presence of excesses “are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” (Luther 2).
Therefore, it reaches a point where the oppressed have to refute the excesses of the oppressor and in some way put some pressure on the adamant leadership structures, to opt for peaceful negotiations. This is because over the history, freedom has never been acquired peacefully and the ones denied of it must force the oppressors, in some way, to give it (Luther 2).
There has to be a “constructive nonviolent tension” which Luther says is “necessary for growth” (Luther 2). It is from this perspective that civil disobedience, which pressures the oppressors and their stakeholders in the society to rethink their decisions and give in for negotiations, gives birth to freedom for the oppressed.
So does it have to be violent or can solutions be reached through nonviolent actions? In fact, civil disobedience does not have to be violent. Martin Luther listed the basic channels in the nonviolent campaign and they involve, “…collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action” (Luther 1).
Therefore, in case all peaceful solutions have not born any fruits, violent ways are used to put pressure on the oppressors. This is what had happened in the Birmingham as they had gone through all the required steps but the city remained in the verge of segregation (Luther 1).
As much as the oppressors cannot grant freedom unless the oppressed sacrificed, it follows that in most cases, freedom has never been found without the edge of the sword. Luther lists lengthily, in what can be called the most seriously toned part of the letter; the excesses of segregation, “…when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (Luther 2).
It is the gist of this very long quote that answers the question and leaves the necessary action to be taken by the oppressed. The oppressor always pushes the oppressed to the corner so that the only way to act is to resort to violence. In fact, no one likes violent ways of doing things because they come with their own cost. Peace is the will of any human being, but there comes a time when peace has to be sacrificed, like a grain of seed, in a quest for justice.
In conclusion, Martin Luther king has in his speech tried to catapult the importance of nonviolent means in seeking negotiation. However, when this approach turns out futile, nature demands that its alternative be used.
It is well concurred that civil disobedience is inevitable as far as there are unjust laws in the society and the letter by the king illustrates this by uncovering the clergy’s ignorance, the racial rut in the society and probably the apathy of the oppressed. The truth remains that there is no peace that comes in a platter; some people have to die for others to live peacefully.
Luther, Martin. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963. Web. <http://web.cn.edu/KWHEELER/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf>