From the onset of man fighting for freedom or his beliefs, the question has always been whether one person can make a difference using words rather than wars. Philosophically, the concept of civil disobedience would appear to be an ineffective weapon against political injustice; history however has proven it to repeatedly be one of the most powerful weapons of the common man. Martin Luther King Jr. looked at the way African Americans were treated in the United States and saw an inequality. By refusing to pay his taxes and subsequently being imprisoned for a night, Henry David Thoreau demonstrated his intolerance for the American government. Under British rule, India remained oppressed until Mohandas Gandhi, with his doctrine of non-violence lead the country to freedom.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had faith in his beliefs of equality, and that all people, regardless of race should be free and governed under the same laws. In the later part of the 1960's, Birmingham, Alabama, the home of King, was considered to be the most racially divided city in the South. "Birmingham is so segregated, we're within a cab ride of being in Johannesburg, South Africa", 1 when King said this he was only speaking half jokingly. In Birmingham the unwritten rule towards blacks was that "if the Klan doesn't stop you, the police will."2 When King decided that the time had come to end the racial hatred, or at least end the violence, he chose to fight in a non-traditional way. Rather than giving the white people the pleasure of participating in violent confrontations, King believed if they fought without violence for their rights, they would have a faster success rate. King also saw Birmingham as the major problem in America.
If Birmingham could be cracked, the direction
of the entire non-violent movement in the South
could take a significant turn. It was our faith
that as Birmingham goes, so goes the South 3
King saw the root of the problem in a place he could assist in rescuing. He gathered together his group of supporters and volunteers. They were trained daily before they began to protest, not on how to fight back to the physical attacks they would receive, but to be prepared for the physical abuse they would have to endure. The volunteers were trained to believe that Bull Conor, the police sheriff, wanted them to fight back with violence. King taught them to accept it, and continue to participate in sit-ins and carry signs of protest. King had the ability to inspire his demonstrators so that they feared nothing, not even death.
And I know that when I say don't be afraid
you know what I mean. Don't even be afraid
to die. I submit to you tonight that no man is
free if he fears death. But the minute you
conquer the fear of death, at that moment you
are free. You must say somehow, I don't have
much money; I don't have much education; I may
not be able to read and write, but I have the
capacity to die.4
When the demonstrators marched, they were jailed. When they were released from jail they marched again. The blacks of Birmingham, with the aid of King, united together against the common enemy of racism. When King was imprisoned, he wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail, explaining the philosophy of non-violence and presenting one of the most well-founded justifications for direct action and civil disobedience. People in Birmingham criticised King about the timing of his demonstrations.
We know through painful experience that freedom
is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must
be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have
yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was
`well-timed' in the view of those who have not
suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
For years now I have heard the word `Wait'! It
rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing
familiarity. This `Wait' has almost always
meant `Never'. We must come to see, with one
of our distinguished jurists, that `justice too long
delayed is justice denied.'5
With his desire to free himself and others equally oppressed, King and his dream moved forward with more rallies, marches and speeches. It took four years from the time King began his