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In Flight
Forced Smiles
Happy Oblivion
Ducking Destiny
Chance of Showers
Chance Encounters
The Thinking Dog
The Race
Flight of the Ostrich
Monster Under My Bed
The Rose Garden
Window Shopping
Dramatic Romances
Musings on Nature
A Day at School
The Holy Light
A Rainy Night


The Roller Coaster
The Purse
Sammy's Lesson
The Legend of the Hungry Dragon
Spirits in the Night


My Philosophy of Life
Five Scholarship Questions
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois
Prophets for God
My Service Project (1999-2000)
My Service Project (1997-1998)
The Beauty of the Forest
Reaching Beyond

The Pastry Menace
A College Just for You!
The Rights of Plants

Literary Analyses
Saving Harry:  Clearing the Controversy Over Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Essays on Wuthering Heights
The Creature in Frankenstein and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Edna's Decision in The Awakening
Character Comparison in Kate Chopin's The Awakening
Why The Chosen?

Research Papers
Race, Norms, and the Sidewalk
Analytical Exercise
The Validity of Comparing Governments
The British System: Legal-Rational Or Traditional?
The Importance of Framing
Madison on Factions
Spirituality and the Brain
Sea Water and Conductivity

Clinic Violence: A "Moral" Way to Bring About Change?
Graduation Speech
The Call to Relationship
Mark Twain Speaks Again (original version)
Mark Twain Speaks Again (shortened version)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Year 2000
Hunting for Sport?

Mercury Spill Exercise
Chocolate Feature Exercise
Character Sketch
Reaction Story
Aspiring Actress Profile
"Shark Attack" Exercise
Villa Maria Academy Hosts Diversity Panel

Coastal Vacation


The Importance of Framing

In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., found himself in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell, arrested for his protest activities. The well-known civil rights activist and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) there confronted the criticism of eight local clergymen, who had labeled King a troublemaking outsider. In his "Letter form Birmingham Jail, 1963," King addresses their concerns and, more importantly, defines the struggle in Birmingham in terms of a universal quest for justice, frames the Civil Rights Movement as a Christian moral conflict and a battle between the peaceful protestors and the violent police force.

Realistically, King realized that he could not assume that he had the African-American community's support in the peaceful fight against segregation. As he points out, he must balance the forces of complacency and radicalism within the community in order to form an effective coalition for equal rights (King 83-84). King must establish collective meaning for the events in Birmingham not only to justify his presence there, which some residents question, but also to unite the entire community behind his cause.

King lists several reasons for his presence in Birmingham, and each one builds upon the last in importance. First, his organization, the SCLC, has ties to the Birmingham region through lower affiliates, and the many organizations falling under the SCLC share staff. This argument establishes the technical, inarguable reason for his presence. Secondly and more importantly, he claims that higher reasons have called him to Birmingham, reasons that call not only his attention, but also that of every freedom- and justice-loving American. What happens in Birmingham, King claims, will ripple throughout the country, since no community exists in isolation. In addition, this injustice is never isolated, but exists, overtly or covertly, everywhere (80). By making this argument, King justifies not only his concern for the events occurring in Birmingham but also the potential concern of every American. An injustice committed in Birmingham attacks the principles of all good citizens, regardless of geographical location, and so that injustice has meaning for everyone.

Also, in his letter, King makes several references to the Bible, to God, and to the Christian church. King, an ordained minister, uses these allusions to frame the civil rights struggle for his audience. Comparing his quest to bring justice to the African-American community with Paul's mission to bring the gospel to Macedonia brings instant recognition of his noble purpose to the predominantly Christian community (80). The reference demonstrates the moral nature of the quest for equality, and it elevates the Civil Rights Movement by association. King appeals to people's "inner spiritual church" (85), calling for people to make sacrifices for their faith and for the cause, comparing these sacrifices to those made by the earliest persecuted Christians (85). King furthers his point by proclaiming the civil rights protesters the "children of God" (86).

In addition to Christianity, King appeals to principle. Many white moderates believed that the law's purpose was to bring order to society, but King contends that instead, its purpose is to create justice (83). Since some laws may be unjust, King argues, those laws may be broken in protest, provided that the protester acts peacefully and willingly accepts the consequences of his actions. By breaking those unjust laws, the protester serves the higher cause of justice (82). In this way, King portrays those who civil rights protesters as the real heroes, instead of the police who maintain order.

King makes sure, at the end of the letter, to point out the brutality of the police force. He details their crimes against the African-American community, vividly evoking the "angry dogs sinking their teeth into six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes" (86). Violent scenes like that one catch the attention of the media and therefore, garner public sympathy. In order for his cause to succeed, King knew that he had to win the attention of the white moderates, and to do that, he needed to present images of order gone awry, of the protectors of order committing acts of violence against innocent citizens. Only in this way would they become outraged and demand an end to segregation.

King effectively frames the events of the Civil Rights Movement in his letter. Other movements, such as the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), did not achieve the same level of framing success. While the Civil Rights Movement concentrated on the universal principle of fighting injustice in order to establish collective meaning, the pro-ERA forces often promoted the amendment's substantive effects for women over the principle of equal rights for all regardless of sex (Mansbridge 4). Also, while the Civil Rights Movement could focus media attention on the violent acts committed by law enforcement against the nonviolent protesters, the pro-ERA movement saw abortion rights, an incredibly divisive issue, become attached to the amendment in by the opposing forces, siphoning off support for ratification (13). In the end, unlike in the Civil Rights Movement, the framing of the ERA established by its opponents triumphed, and the amendment became too controversial to succeed.

Martin Luther King, Jr., may have considered his imprisonment a temporary setback in his fight for equal rights, but in fact, with his "Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963," King propelled the movement immeasurably forward. He gave the segregation rampant in Birmingham meaning for the entire country, and effectively promoted his cause by placing it in the universal moral context of the Christian church and by portraying the police as the true criminals. King provided the Civil Rights Movement with the support it needed to finally triumph over injustice.

Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002