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