Although both Martin Luther King Jr’s letter and Barack Obama’s speech addressed the issue of racial discrimination, Letter From a Birmingham Jail was written when segregation was present in the U.S, and was composed in hopes to earn rights for black people; A More Perfect Union speaks to today’s society where blatant discrimination still exists, but the rights of white people and people of color are legally the same.
In 1963, the city of Birmingham was segregated by race. Movie theaters, public transport and even drinking fountains were separated; one section for white people, another section for “coloreds.” Sometimes, public services wouldn’t even offer an option for black people.
Birmingham was one of the more extreme examples, being “…the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” written in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. However, this city was just one piece in the make up of American division, and Martin Luther King Jr. was determined to make changes.
Dr. King was jailed after leading a non-violent demonstration in Birmingham. The letter he wrote responded to the criticism he received from a group of Alabama clergymen, claiming that his attempts of reform would only result in violence. King responds, “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.”
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The writing came from a place of hopeful desperation and the belief that people of color had been the victims of discrimination for long enough. Four months after he wrote Letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King led the March on Washington and delivered his iconic speech “I Have a Dream.” Which remains one of the most recognized orations of today.
44 years after Martin Luther King Jr’s movement for equality, in 2007, Illinois senator Barack Obama announced he would be joining the presidential race of 2008. He would go on to become the first black president of the United States, receiving both open-ended praise and harsh criticism, much of the latter revolving around his racial background.
On March 18 of 2008, Obama delivered a speech titled A More Perfect Union. The name nodded to the preamble of the U.S constitution, which states in its opening line, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…”
The piece, although broadcasted publicly, was the response to racial slurs made by Obama’s former pastor, Illinois reverend Jeremiah Wright. In the speech, Obama spoke on Wright’s behavior, but focused on a greater picture. The reverend’s words may have sparked the public controversy, but he certainly wasn’t the only one making crude remarks about people of color.
In a particularly thoughtful part of his speech, Obama states, “But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America…”
Although this follows Obama’s words on Rev. Wright, it addresses racism on a greater scale.
Even today, racially driven bias is present in many aspects of life. Obama’s speech spoke in response to racial oppression. The constitution, which he refers to, was written long before Obama’s time, and was constructed around now-dated American values, including slavery and white superiority. By titling his speech A More Perfect Union, Obama communicates that in present day, a “More perfect union” is one where people of color are treated with the same level of respect as anyone else.
As leaders, Dr. King and Senator Obama were somewhat parallel. Both men were black, and both wrote/spoke in hopes to cease racial discrimination. However, the times in which they preached and the situations in which they existed were very different.
While Dr. King wrote for racial equality, discrimination in America was directed by the rights that people of color did and did not have. Cities like Birmingham were built on an infrastructure that divided people by their backgrounds and nearly encouraged racial dispute and overall hatred.
On the other hand, Obama’s speech was written and given in 2008, long after legal equality had been granted for black people. By contrasting Letter from a Birmingham Jail and A More Perfect Union, it is clear to see that despite the equality that has been achieved since Dr. King’s time, discrimination towards people of color is still prevalent.
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However, there is still hope for racial justice in America. Substantial progress has been made since the 1960s, when black people were just beginning to earn their equality and freedom of speech. Since that time, Barack Obama has made history by becoming the first African American president elected to office. More recently, movements like #BlackLivesMatter have emerged, urging an end for discrimination and violence against black people. Because of leaders like Obama and Dr. King, America moves closer to becoming a place where racial discrimination is a story of the past.
(Article from 1963)
- James W. Vander Zanden. “The Non-Violent Resistance Movement Against Segregation.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 68, no. 5, 1963, pp. 544–550. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2774606.
(Article from 2008)
- “Barack Obama’s America.” Barack Obama's America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era, by John Kenneth White, University of Michigan Press, ANN ARBOR, 2009, pp. 213–236. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt22p7hhs.11.
(Book Citation) (E-book, available as a physical copy at Haselwood Library, Bremerton)
- King, Martin Luther, et al. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. . University of California Press, 1993.
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