A Comparison of the Similarities between Civil Disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail
How it works
It is our responsibility as citizens to not only follow the laws in place but to challenge them when we deem them unjust. By doing this, we are directly committing civil disobedience. This essay on the comparison of Civil Disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail will explain both the similarities and the differences between each concept. Civil disobedience is a tool that has the potential to hurt existing systems when used incorrectly. It is a theory first coined by Henry David Thoreau in his book of the same name, and he encouraged citizens to fight back against unjust laws. When civil disobedience is used justly to alter the laws inhibiting certain rights, it can enlighten the system. One of the most famous proponents of civil disobedience is Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King stated that he saw injustice in our society and fought to correct it. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King Draws a connection between himself and Socrates, who was a firm believer in the laws of Athens, yet also practiced civil disobedience.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King surmises that many other influential people in history practiced civil disobedience. King believed that Socrates openly practiced civil disobedience, allowing for the pursuit of academic freedoms for the Athenian citizens”. The similarities between civil disobedience and the letter from Birmingham Jail are clear here. Dr. King defines civil disobedience as an individual directly violating unjust laws or social norms set by the status quo. They do this nonviolently and with the intent of accepting any punishment that may be imposed. In Dr. King’s eyes, Socrates practiced civil disobedience similarly to himself because Socrates directly disobeyed the opinions of the majority of his fellow citizens. Socrates did not just disobey the social norms, but he openly passed on his opinion of unwritten laws and encouraged individuals to“rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis.
How it works
While Socrates openly encouraged others to go against certain Athenian social constructs, he was a firm believer in the laws of Athens. When Socrates was given the opportunity to save his own life by fleeing imprisonment, he assured his dear friend Crito that he would rather die than break the laws of his beloved city. Even though Socrates was wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to death, he chose to die for his beliefs instead of living knowing he defied his moral code. To justify his opinion to Crito, he then personifies the laws, saying that “By this action, you are attempting to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city.” Here is where one may observe the subtle differences between civil disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail.
One may wonder how this could possibly be classified as civil disobedience. Socrates had the chance to live but knew by escaping his punishment, he was directly opposing Athens’s laws, thereby committing civil disobedience. Rarely is there such a person that would lay down their life just not to discredit the laws of their own government. Humanity, at its roots, is selfish, and most people placed in this situation wouldn’t think twice about committing injustice if it meant their life. But Socrates had so much faith in the laws of Athens he would die rather than oppose them. So how exactly could King justify Socrates’s civil disobedience?
Civil disobedience isn’t merely classified as opposing unjust laws, and one can also commit civil disobedience by contradicting social constructs they deem unjust. Deciding when to practice civil disobedience is one that should come with deep reflection.
The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response to criticism from Alabama clergymen who claimed his methods were counterproductive. Instead, King passionately defends civil disobedience and criticizes the clergymen’s position. As a result, the Letter is considered a seminal text on civil disobedience principles.
Thoreau held a distinct view on Civil Disobedience from King and Gandhi. He believed it was an individual’s duty to disobey unjust laws and that it should only be used as a last resort after other forms of protest had failed. In contrast, King and Gandhi believed in the effectiveness of civil disobedience and its use early on in the protest process.
Civil disobedience and Letter from Birmingham Jail share similarities in their use of nonviolent protests to raise awareness about an issue, their willingness to violate laws to make a statement, and their efficacy in sparking change.