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Exploring the Letters of Birmingham Jail

Students piled into the 4th Floor Program Room on Wednesday, November 7 to listen to three panelists, all engaged in civil rights projects in Baltimore, reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters of Birmingham Jail. During the discussion, panelists Dr. C. Anthony Hunt, Dr. Craig Garriot, and Gabriella Kahrl highlighted the significance of specific quotes from the letters at the time and in today’s society. Continue reading for more information about the quotes discussed and the panelists’ reflection on their significance.

Quote #1
“In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society”

Dr. Garriot began the discussion on this quote by explaining that Dr. King is reinforcing the fact that the civil rights movement was an African American church-based prophetic movement focused on the social morale of society. Dr. Hunt continued the conversation by explaining the difference in the use of the words thermometer and thermostat in the quote. He explained that the thermostat sets the tone and temperature of the nation, while the thermometer reflects the tone. To conclude the discussion Kahrl emphasized that Dr. King is discussing the relationship of people within the American society and is encouraging them to engage in dialogue by noting that there cannot be a transformation in society without some sort of participation from the people.

Quote #2
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

In this quote, Dr. King is depicted as a strategic thinker, explains Dr. Hunt. In writing this letter to eight white clergymen, Dr. Hunt emphasizes that Dr. King’s response to the clergy was a measured response that reflects measured action and measured thoughts. Dr. King never protested without a purpose as the quote outlines the specific strategic steps that Dr. King followed in a linear order before taking direct action: determine whether injustices exist, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Dr. Hunt also noted that it is not explicitly stated but that it is implied that the direct action that Dr. King discusses is nonviolent direct action.

To make a modern connection to Dr. King’s order of strategic steps, Kahrl compared the steps to the steps taken as a lawyer when dealing with legal proceedings and issues. Before going to the courtroom, lawyers identify the facts in order to understand the specifics of the case. Once the facts are identified, the first step is negotiation to try and work out a deal. If that does not work out, proceedings will move on to the courtroom which is the direct action. Kahrl noted that the one step that is left out of the process is self-purification, which is a critical step that most lawyers do not think about. Through the words of Dr. King, Kahrl realizes the importance of the self-purification step and the necessity to ask the questions “What is the price that I am willing to pay,” and “Is that a step that I should be including in my role as an attorney.”

In a question to the panelists, a student challenged the panelists to connect Dr. King’s strategy to societal changes that we see today. The panelists concluded that in the movements that young people are supporting today in regard to gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too demonstrate some of the practices.

Quote #3
“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

Although a clean and simple definition, just law is not an easy one because it is impossible to infinitely know all of God’s infinite laws, explains Kahrl. Many of our laws are written in a neutral context in a way that is not designed to look good or bad. Conflicts are derived with the laws in the way that they are applied. Kahrl elaborates on this idea, explaining that the flaw is not with the law or how it is written, but the flaw is with us. She continues to add a positive element to this notion by suggesting that the solution is also with us. Dr. Hunt further analyzed Kahrl’s point by stating that it is the obligation of citizens to disobey laws that are immoral.

Quote #4
“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Dr. King is raising the bar for what it is going to take and cost to see justice, explains Dr. Garriot. In this quote, Dr. King is declaring that a call to unity demands a call to justice. Therefore, our nation cannot have true unity when injustices exist, and there has to be a movement for justice. Dr. Hunt explains that the movement for justice that Dr. King argues for in this quote is non-violent direct action. Not only does Dr. King call for non-violent direct action, but he explains that activists need to be willing to accept the consequences of one’s decision to not accept unjust laws.

Quote #5
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Kahrl notes that in this quote, Dr. King addresses an important point, “tension is not something that is created, but something that is exposed.” Dr. King is rejecting the accusation that he created problems and tensions that did not exist prior. Rather than creating the problems, Dr. King notes that he exposed the tension that already existed and is giving it the opportunity to heal with light and air.

Dr. Hunt elaborated on this point by explaining that not all tensions need to be seen as negative and they should not be avoided by society. Many argued that Dr. King was a troublemaker, but by starting with the end in mind, Dr. King knew that addressing the preexisting tensions would be healthy because it would lead to a greater good. In connection with leading to the greater good, the drama that brought attention to the societal tension resulted in the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act.

Quote #6
“An unjust law is a code that a numerical power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself … a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.”

In order to explain this quote by Dr. King, Kahrl used an example that she faces every day as a lawyer for immigrants facing minor criminal charges. When U.S. citizens commit a crime they serve their time and are then reintroduced into American society. However, Kahrl explained that immigrants in similar situations are not always welcomed back into society after serving time for the crime that they committed. Rather than being reintroduced into society, immigrants face the challenge of being deported to a country that may be hostile to them. This is an example of an unjust law in which a majority inflicts pain on the minority, says Kahrl, because citizens with the power to vote have the power to punish those who cannot vote. Citizens also have the power to defend the minority population and should use this power to defend them against unjust laws.

Quote #7
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.”

Dr. Garriot explained that Dr. King says that to be an extremist is to reach the highest call for a person who would claim himself to be a believer. An extremist for love, like Dr. King, is the kind of leader and person that we all should be. While Dr. King was a man in prison, he was still able to be an extremist for love and found such a strong way to love. If King was able to do this while he was in prison, we can all find a way to do this in our own lives.

Quote #8
“Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individual may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture … groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

The biggest white elephant in America is racism, says Dr. Hunt. As the ratio of minority people grow, many white privileged people are pushing back against diversity. As America reaches super-diversity, it is predicted that in 2050, there will not be a majority ethnic group in America. This will have a positive impact on the nation because groups tend to think in regard to group wants rather than with the individual conscience.
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