Your task is to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and participate in discussion.
Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative (1845) and King’s “Letter” (1963) are both recognized as examples of effective rhetoric. Effective rhetoric addresses a specific problem/situation by demonstrating a keen awareness of audience in order to achieve its purpose.
Though separated by more than 100 years, Douglass’s and King’s texts make their appeals to remarkably similar White audiences. Think of these similarities as you read King’s text.
(Note: writing conventions, including spelling and punctuation, change over time. Recently updated guidelines dictate that we now capitalize both Black and White, Blackness and Whiteness. Use lower case when referring to actual color, such as a white apron or a black dress.)
Douglass wrote for White Northerners sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. These Whites supported abolition (or were abolitionistleaning) to the extent that they were willing to purchase Douglass’s Narrative, subscribe to an abolitionist newspaper (such as Garrison’s Liberator), attend an abolitionist meeting/event, and/or donate money for abolitionist activities. None of this meant, however, that the White supporter of abolishing slavery wanted a Black family to move into their neighborhood or for a Black woman to teach their children at an integrated school. In other words, it was entirely possible to be both antislavery and racist.
Douglass knew this and wrote accordingly. He argued for abolishing slavery by demonstrating its harmful effects on both the oppressed and the oppressor. A 19th century White American could thus accept Douglass’s argument without also accepting that Blacks and Whites are created equal and thus entitled to the same rights and protection under the law.
Fast forward 118 years to a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. A Black preacher scribbles in the margins of a newspaper, responding to public criticism from White southern clergymen. These clergymen want King to leave Birmingham, to stop his marches against segregation and racist policies and to take his fellow “agitators” home with him. Their attitude angers and disappoints King, who responds to each of their criticisms, pointbypoint, in his “Letter.”
Frederick Douglass also received pushback from White Christians. In his Narrative, he exposes the hypocrisy of Christian slaveholders. He does this in a subtle and sometimes sympathetic way, and yet his portrayal of slave masters proclaiming religious faith while separating families and starving Black people so angered his readers that Douglass felt compelled to add an Afterword that distinguished between Christianity in general and a distorted version of Christianity practiced by certain individuals in order to justify their (often vile and violent) mistreatment of Black people.
One might reasonably conclude that Douglass struck a nerve. Most people do not like to be called out for their hypocrisy, and Douglass’s readers preferred to proclaim their support for the abolition of slavery without the concomitant requirement to actually think and behave according to their professed Christian beliefs.
This is how laws get changed but (racist) attitudes remain.
For your discussion post, sketch a psychological portrait of the White clergymen who constitute King’s audience. What can you reasonably assume about these men from King’s “Letter”? On what do you base your assumptions? Be specific as you read King’s “Letter” for an understanding of exactly who and what King faces in the fight for equality and justice that he is leading exactly 100 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Tip: Some students summarize King’s letter in their post. Note that I am asking you to draw a psychological portrait of the men King is addressing in his letter and that I am not using “draw” or “portrait” literally. Such a portrait–written description–would identify feelings or states of mind that the person being analyzed may or may not be aware of. Imagine observing these men when they don’t know you are there and then writing a brief summary of your findings that amounts to an armchair “psychoanalysis.” This is not an easy task. All I am asking is for you to take a stab at it and avoid summarizing.
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