Fighting Inequality with the Past: A Look into “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Related Historical Documents
In his letter to the clergymen, Dr. Martin Luther King utilizes many of the intellectual concepts that President Thomas Jefferson employed in the writing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. While highlighting Jefferson’s more idealistic approach, Dr. King continuously references his own religious background in order to establish an emotional and fundamental connection with the clergymen. Although Jefferson took a much less up-front approach when incorporating religion into his compositions and doctrines than Dr. King, King’s ideas of unity and reason through God closely resemble those of President Abraham Lincoln, and more specifically in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. By harmonizing the approach of the two Presidents, Dr. King composes a rather compelling letter from his jail cell.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence asserts that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  As the dawn of an independent United States approached, those living in the colonies were treated with little respect from their British rulers. This led Jefferson to construct a document in which the rights and safety of the people of the new nation rested firmly in the highest echelon of priority. While Jefferson asserts that all men are created equal, for King’s purposes, the Jefferson’s idea of constituents challenging the government is more central. All men are created equally, but recognizing and understanding the differences in order to achieve equality was King’s goal. After the clergymen reprimanded Dr. King and his followers for conducting “unwise and untimely” protests, he replied “that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts.”  Dr. King felt that the old and new administrations in Birmingham turned their backs on their promises to desegregate some of the institutions in the city. When no results came to fruition, Dr. King, much like Jefferson, took action and fought for the safety and happiness of his people.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address highlights that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” . This reference alludes to the Lincoln’s idea that God brought woe unto the United States in the form of the Civil War as a punishment for slavery. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King argues that unjust laws must be disobeyed. He also quotes Saint Augustine by stating “an unjust law is no law at all”. While it may be aloof to directly compare Lincoln’s idea of God to Dr. King himself, the similarities are apparent. Dr. King brought protests to Birmingham as a response to the discourse over racial equality, while God brought about the war as a response to slavery in the States. Each of these events, worldly and otherworldly, emphasize Lincoln’s ideas of religion as a road to equality. In King’s eyes, devotion to God was the key to unity between the races. Lincoln viewed God’s actions as consequences for man’s atrocities, while King viewed God’s actions as rewards for loyalty.
Although many ideological similarities exist between King’s letter and the addresses of the two Presidents, the foundations of them are inherently different. While Jefferson and King composed their publications in order to address some type of inequality, the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to separate the colonists from the British Empire. In contrast, King’s letter was an attempt to help the clergymen understand why King and his followers are protesting in order to subsequently unite the white church and the black church. Furthermore, Lincoln felt that the Civil War was an inevitable response of God (“’Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come.’” ), while King felt that trusting in God and living a life of religious introspection would be the key to unlocking the door to unity and equality.
While Dr. King may not have directly quoted or referenced the way Jefferson or Lincoln thought, the similarities between his and their words and actions are evident. King and Jefferson view the rights of man as inalienable and inherent. King and Lincoln view that through God, justice will inevitably be achieved through trust in Him. As racial inequality still presents itself as a hot topic today, it is important to look back on historical texts such as King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and relate our current issues to the issues our country has experienced in the past.
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In his letter to the clergymen, Dr. Martin Luther King utilizes many of the intellectual concepts that President Thomas Jefferson employed in the writing of the Declaration of Independence of […]