A Testament of Hope - Martin Luther King
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a clearly written essay that explains the reasons behind, and the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience, and gently expresses King's disappointment with those who are generally supportive of equal rights for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, more than any other figure, shaped American life from the mid-'50s to the late '60s. This was a time when large numbers of Americans, barely recognized as such by sanctioned power, dared to dream of what the country could be at its best, in the face of what often was its worst. For example, in December, 1955, days after Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city's rules mandating segregation on buses, a bus boycott was launched and King was elected as president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. As the boycott continued through 1956, King gained national prominence as a result of his exceptional oratorical skills and personal courage. Despite attempts to suppress the movement, Montgomery buses were desegregated in December 1956, after the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional. King's leadership took place during the most tumultuous period in America's recent past. Under his guidance, the unfathomable goal of abolishing federal and state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination was accomplished in only a few short years.
King's factual and reasoned approach is intended to win his adversaries over by appealing to their consciences. King works with a rhetorical tradition not only because it is effectual but also because it resonates with the deepest aspect of his calling which was to spread the gospel of brotherhood and justice (152). From his peaceful persuasion, to imaginative solutions in changing times to the power of hope, optimism, nonviolence strategy, and finally to the need for a great dream, these valuable applications are comprehensive instruments for taking courageous action under even the most difficult of circumstances. Above all, King follows his method of careful reasoning and is convinced that his arguments will persuade his audience (153).
King was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to aid in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Thus, he was there because injustice was present (154). He was not content with a system that saw his people or people of any color, as second class citizens. He set out to bring equality for people everywhere. So often they had become victims of broken promise (155). As a result, he was determined to create an unstoppable organization, reshape a struggle and with his articulated vision, craft a strategy that took defeats and turned them into victories. Although fellow clergymen urged him not to come to Birmingham, he could not sit idly and be unconcerned with the maddening demonstrations that were taking place.
King, quickly realized that the best strategy to liberate African-Americans and gain them rights was to use nonviolent forms of protest. He wanted to eliminate the use of violence as a means to manage and establish cooperative ways of interacting. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (154). After all, he knew that any violence on the part of his civil rights workers would lead to violent counterattacks from segregationists. He knew this would only lead his followers to injury and death. "The purpose of our direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation" (156). Nonviolence put his followers on the moral high ground and made the brutality of racists very apparent. In this way, King won many allies and gained passages of the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965.
Not only did King concentrate on non-violence in order to liberate African-Americans, but he also felt it was necessary that his message be important to all people regardless of race or class. This explained his disillusionment with the white moderate. King confessed his disappointment with the white moderate for their devotion to order rather than to justice (161). He had hoped that the white moderate would recognize that desegregation simply removes legal and social prohibitions. He knew that collective ideas were more creative and more profound. King hoped to awaken the white moderate from their great moral and political sleep that had