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This Day in Debate History! Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail (4/16/20)

On April 16th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," where he stated that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and that people have a moral responsibility to break peacefully break unjust laws and to take direct action. Martin Luther King Jr. not only was an incredible public speaker but also a member of his college's debate team. King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" is obviously one of the most historically significant documents in American History, but for us debate educators and students a great example and lesson in point by point refutation and rebuttals.

MLK's letter was a rebuttal to a newspaper article which was smuggled into the jail for MLK to read. The article contained "A Call for Unity" statement by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. King wrote a rebuttal on the margins of the newspaper and scraps of writing paper which were also smuggled in for King.

First, they accused King of being an "outsider" and that local African Americans should "withdraw support from these demonstrations" and unite locally together with white leadership.

King responded, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly ... Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

Second, the white clergymen argued that civil rights reforms should go through the courts and judicial and legislative process and "proper channels" rather than marches, civil disobedience, and "in the streets." "When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets" they stated.

King responded that the black community was left with "no alternative" after years of oppression. "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. King then argued for the distinction between "just laws" and "unjust laws." "The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Third, they advocated for patience. They were sympathetic of the "natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized." But protesters should go through the courts and "proper" legal channels and in the "meantime" laws should not be broken but obeyed. "Decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed."

King responded that"'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" He listed a number of injustices against African Americans and concluded, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

Fourth, the white clergymen accused civil rights protesters of being "extreme."

At first King disputed that label and then he embraced it. "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" King continued in his criticism of the clergymen and other "moderates" in the civil rights movement who opposed nonviolent civil disobedience. "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."


"A Call for Unity" Letter

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Wikipedia Article

Martin Luther King Jr. Reading of Letter from Birmingham Jail

Khan Academy Reading of Letter from Birmingham Jail