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Martin Luther King's 'Letter From the Birmingham City Jail': Agape, Interest, and Justice

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Allen, Barbara
Conference: Workshop on the Workshop
Location: Bloomington , IN
Conf. Date: June 16-18, 1994
Date: 1994
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/2254
Sector: Social Organization
Region: North America
Subject(s): Workshop
civil rights
political theory
justice
Abstract: "On Good Friday, April 12,1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, charged with defying an Alabama Court injunction prohibiting protests and marches for racial equality in Birmingham. During his confinement, King wrote the 'Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,' responding not only to this arrest, but to an open letter written earlier in the day by eight fellow clergy. The Alabama rabbi and ministers criticized the civil rights protests, proclaiming them as untimely, unwise measures, that were led by outsiders and precipitated violence. Synthesizing nearly a decade of his civil rights activism, King answers these charges, offering a carefully crafted analysis of civil disobedience. The 'Letter' can be examined from two distinct perspectives, the contractarian theory of liberal democracy and the concept of community found in Christian theology. Before the 'Letter' can be claimed by either tradition, scholars must reconcile these different facets and the aspects of King's life and work that they represent. Civil disobedience is understood in contractarian theory as a corrective to unjust constitutional institutional arrangements, a position best reflected in the work of John Rawls. Rawls treats Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'Letter from the Birmingham City Jail' as an archetypal illustration of civil disobedience's role in a contractarian account of justice. More than a historical example of liberal theory in action, however, King's protest and the 'Letter' convey a shared religious heritage, indicating limitations in the contractarian expression of human justice and its interpretation of the 'Letter.' By introducing a conception of justice that is not simply based on human calculation, King encompasses Rawls's definition of citizen rights and obligations, yet broadens the contemporary contractarian idea of justice."

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