The Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Thrilling was my tour of US that revealed countless facets of American society i.e. existing and emerging political and geopolitical ideologies; thoughts, concerns and postures of the commons; the leaders and their reflections in the people and physical infrastructure; culture, pride symbols, youth, education, crisis management and many more…. Justifiable was my excitement before and during the visit and am thankful to Atlantic Council that provided me an exposure which was more than a visit.

Among all activities, we came across a non scheduled event at Georgia Tech University, Atlanta where we had to participate in a discussion session with Mr. Joel H. Cowan on famous letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. from Birmingham Jail. We were conveyed to read the contents of the letter twice before the session. Why twice? I got the point during the session. Initially I had very normal reception and excitement for the event honestly but afterwards for me it was one of the most wonderful events of the visit where I explored that why some people engraved their names in history books. What they possessed inside them and how they influenced mega society through their actions backed up by their personal values. The letter gave me a glimpse of that.

Mr. Cowan on “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail”

Writing style with absolute cognition of personal state of mind affects the reader and grabs the mind even the mind of whom that has different or even opposite ideas. The letter contents were more than a confident and overwhelming piece of writing because there reflected an ideology with very thoughtful strategic dimensions inspiring millions to be the part and follow.

The discussion was around the King’s basic philosophy of his non-violence movement for the civil rights of African-American citizens in 1960s. Mr. Cowan discussed in detail the four basic steps of any non-violent campaign proposed by King i.e.

  1. Collection of facts to determine whether injustice exist
  2. Negotiation
  3. Self purification
  4. Direct action

Discussion on the contents of the letter

The implications of these four steps can also be part of other type of movements but I was deeply touched by King’s spirit of attaining his objectives through leading a well thought campaign, candid opinions, undeniable relevancy of variables with rules and faith, differentiating between just and unjust, extremism in patience and then strength of mind towards action. He dared to challenge the rules about their legitimacy and it was his coercing towards rationalism which later resulted in getting his objectives through the campaign. In defense of his ideas, King gives the example of Socrates’s viewpoint i.e. it was necessary to create tension in the mind so that individual could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal. King’s acceptance to endure to infinite extent was clearly reflection of the precedence set by Socrates who chose the poison bowl instead of compromise over truth. That recalled me the famous painting of Jacques-Louis David describing the last minutes of Socrates life where his confidence in self, integrity and defiance of honor of truth roars in his face expressions and acknowledgement of his worthiness is visible over the faces of all others around.

What a man endures …

There are dozens of themes in the letter but I like to discuss some relevancies with Pakistan, where an overwhelming wave of disagreement on the topics of faith and extremism has extended since more than a decade. Both of them are the most misinterpreted terminologies in our society and discussed only to make them more decisive. However, in light of King’s letter, these two always remained the major enablers for having “Just Law – A law which is man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God” and extreme adherence for their “Just Implementation” and consequently resulted in stable societies across history. Faith was the integral element which gave the climax to major civilizations in known history. On the other hand it was the extremism which urged men to strive to develop the “Theory of Everything”. According to King, he was himself labeled as an “extremist” and he expressed that it was a measure of satisfaction for him when he thought about the matter where Jesus was an extremist for love, Amos was an extremist for Justice, Paul was an extremist for Christian gospel etc.

Like every other culture and society, faith and extremism can be the real factors for positive change and stability and to transform the society into an ideal one if illegitimate translations and interpretations of faith and extremism could be avoided. The extremists like King can also emerge here and the faithful followers can revolt against the monsters of poverty, terrorism, corruption, injustice, inequality and ignorance. It is the need of the day that these two are to be used as tools to promote harmony, peace and acceptance instead of spreading war and violence.
The first decade of 21st century has given the lesson that violence and war are not the solution to any conflict. The universalized view of the futility of war is obvious from the first stanza of Shelley’s Hellas

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream

My tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. who made me think in another way.

Arsalan Kashfi

About Arsalan Kashfi

Arsalan M. Kashfi is a development professional with eight years of experience in research, monitoring, evaluation, microfinance, enterprise development, programme/project & community grants coordination/management, and programme development. He has managed/coordinated different donor funded projects related to microfinance & enterprise development, livelihood, social mobilization, education, nutrition, and food security.
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