In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King, Jr. gives a description and explanation of many of the issues that have risen from the civil rights movement. Many of these issues have been around for centuries and some still exist today. As a result, Dr. King, Jr. is not the only one to have expressed his opinions in these areas. Throughout the semester the Honors class has looked at the writings of several other individuals who also studied those same issues. Throughout this paper the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. will be compared and contrasted with those of Socrates, Kant, and Rouseau in regards to religious faith, civil disobedience, and militant non-violence.
One of the key points Dr. King, Jr. makes in this letter is his disappointment with the church. Religious faith is obviously a large part of his life and his ideology. His writings, including this letter, are wrought with Biblical imagery. From his strong faith, however, he notes his dissatisfaction with the church's role in the civil rights movement. Speaking "as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church," King writes that he expected support from it (5). He felt he would find an ally in his fight but instead found an opponent. Based on Rouseau's writing in Social Contract Book IV, it seems as though he (Rouseau) would not expect anything different. In his discussion of Christian societies Rouseau argues that though it is said that a Christian society would be a perfect one, difficulties would still arise (4). Since "Christianity as a religion is entirely spiritual, occupied solely with heavenly things," a truly Christian society would not care about the happenings of the world, but would instead have its eyes fixed on heaven and spiritual things (4). Though one could by no means call the church of King's day, or any day really, a perfect Christian society, the struggle between civil and spiritual obedience has always existed. What does suffering in this world matter if one's true home is in another? Because Rouseau holds such a strong opinion about the focus of Christian societies it seems unlikely that he would expect the church to participate more strongly in the civil rights movement.
Another area that King spends a significant amount of time addressing is the area of civil disobedience along with militant non-violence. He makes several points about determining whether or not a law is considered just and what one is to do in response to unjust laws. He quotes both Augustine and Aquinas as saying, in summary, that a just law is one that aligns with the moral law of God, and that any law which does not follow this guide is unjust (3). Though King is opposed to using violence to reform those laws which are considered unjust he does note "that [He] is not afraid of the word 'tension. . .' There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth" (2). It would seem that Kant, specifically in his work "an Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?," would agree with this philosophy. Throughout this article Kant is working to define the idea of enlightenment and issue a charge to those who wish to be considered enlightened. At the very beginning Kant defines enlightenment as "man's release from his self-incurred immaturity" (1). It is not too great a leap to suggest that King's disappointment with the moderate white who "is more devoted to 'order' than to justice" is also a disappointment in their lack of maturity in the matter of civil rights (4). Kant continues on in a discussion of the necessary restrictions on private reason and the necessary freedom of public reason. He notes that in many ways freedom is restricted. Clerics urge belief, tax collectors urge payment, and, in King's case, leaders urge oppression rather than argument (1). In response Kant answers, "The public use of one's reason must always be free" (2). While it is important to work within the bounds of private reason, one's use of public reason must never be limited. This is the reason one would use to challenge the unjust laws of the society they live in. Kant would see King as an enlightened individual who is exercising his public reason to question and reform the unjust rules of society. In doing this however, he is continuing to work within the private limitations on his freedom by resisting violence and following the laws, such as the requirement of a permit for a parade, that he sees as just. Therefore the philosophies of King and Kant align quite well, and they both issue the same command of informed thinking to their audiences.
A third philosophy which aligns quite well with that of Dr. King is the philosophy of Socrates. In his work "The Parable of Cave" Socrates weaves an informative tale of a man who has been brought into the light of reason and returns for those who remain in the darkness. It can be said that Dr. King was one who was "brought into the light" about segregation and discrimination and was chosen to help the rest of society realize they were still in the cave. Socrates notes "if anyone tried to loose another [from the cave] and bring him up to the light, let [those in the cave] only catch the offender, and... put him to death" (2). King's journey towards enlightening society was very similar. Though he was not alone in his efforts, the "cave dwellers" were much more eager to destroy his cause than to follow him into the light. Regardless, Socrates would have agreed with King's philosophy and would have encouraged him to continue in his efforts. Life outside the cave is the only true life and one must strive to reach it against all odds.
Overall the philosophy that King presents in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one that would be mostly agreed upon by those who have been studied this semester. In some cases the reactions that caught King off guard would have been expected by others, but for the most part his efforts and the ideologies of many before him were well aligned. In his effort to eliminate discrimination through religious faith, civil disobedience, and militant non-violence, King produced a philosophy that would have been supported by many.