Monday, May 14, 2012

Letter From Birmingham Jail

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Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter to the clergy of Alabama to address their criticism of his work concerning what would become know as the Civil Rights movement. In this letter, he addresses their perception of him as an outsider, and his cause, to be untimely.

Dr. King tells the clergy that he is in Alabama because of the injustices committed not only towards black people, but that any injustice towards one group is a threat to justice for any group (Birmingham 16). He takes a stand and challenges the clergy to take seriously, the need for everyone to band together and fight for a common cause. Dr. King challenges the clergy to use its power to alert the society to its wrongdoings and to help create change. Through the concept of systems theory, Dr. King argues that we as human beings are all tied together and that whatever happens to one affects everyone else (Lecture 10/14/0).

This letter is very relevant to this course because its focus is on human behavior in a social environment that at the time was highly divided between those that were treated fairly and with opportunity and those who had little if no access to basic fundamental human rights.

Dr. King advocated for human rights and challenged others to join him. He took unpopular positions and wanted to create change. His form of change challenged the social fabric of the times and was seen as far to bold for the average person to comprehend. Our social environment is created by the ability of some to look out for those less fortunate and to use their talents, power and prestige to help others share in prosperity. Dr. King’s vision of a healthy social environment arose from the unjust laws of segregation and oppression. He chose to act in a nonviolent manner to draw attention to the issues of his cause and not blur them by having the focus shift to violence of his group. Dr. King was very aligned with the values and ethics of social work. Both believe in the equal treatment for all, an opportunity for a decent life, access to resources that create and enhance the well being of others, and the use of advocacy for those that cannot advocate for themselves.

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Dr. Kings Letter From Birmingham Jail addressed his concerns about the quality of life for black people. He focused on the underlying causes that created a society in which those in power gave him and his followers no choice but to protest the injustices created by such a structure. On the surface, there was a lack of basic human rights for black people. The level of inequality in education, health care, jobs, and housing evidenced this as well as other segregation practices that were accepted as the norm in the society at that time. Although people began to acknowledge that these issues were problems, few people wanted to really change anything.

Dr. King knew that in order to create a just environment, he had to address the institutions of power and the laws that permitted such injustices to take place.

The contemporary environmental issues that social workers address today still reflect the issues and concerns of Dr. King. Social work is still focuses on the inequality of resources for minorities and/or the underserved by championing the opportunity for self-development, empowerment, developing useful resources, and creating political change. They work to enhance opportunities to individuals and groups through education, strengthen families, and advocate building relationships between communities and create political change through law.

Dr. King addressed the issues of the black community and in doing so brought to light the plight of the many other groups. Social work has taken on these types of oppressions and injustices to include all disenfranchised groups. Our society has never been one to extend itself to the underprivileged. Dr. King knew that as long as the oppressed were good people and never asked for anything, the dominant society would keep “these people” as underprivileged and would not make any changes to help them. Social workers still see that today, as people continue to live in run down houses, do not have adequate education, have poor health care, and have menial jobs. Dr. King could see that as long as a group continues to participate in what society hands them without organizing for change, they will be subject to unequal treatment.

Dr. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (Birmingham 16). The oppressed do not have the resources or knowledge to advocate for themselves for better life conditions. It takes individuals or groups with status, knowledge, power and resources to advocate on behalf of the underprivileged. For these reasons, the field of social work has been committed to taking up the causes of the underserved. Through their power, skills, knowledge, and ability to harness resources social workers help empower individuals and groups to help themselves.

There has been improvement since Dr. Kings time and what has changed is that for many, life has gotten better, but is certainly not on an equal playing field. There is always a new group of people that need the advocacy of “helpers”. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexism, social class and access to scarce resources are still issues that need to be addressed. Although the “isms” are not overt, they are covert, which at times makes them harder to address.

In order to make societal changes, new laws need to be adopted. Dr. King was a great advocate for revision of laws. He could see that throughout history of the Bible and throughout mans history in society that laws need to change in order for a group to survive. Dr. King wrote, The unjust law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” He also wrote that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws, and that an unjust law is no law that all (Birmingham 16). Social workers are visionaries too, because they also promote social change on behalf of their clients. Social Workers fight for social justice on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people which help fight against unjust laws that keep oppression in tacked (Code of Ethics 1; Ethical Principles).

Dr. King took the approach of nonviolence as a way for cause to be recognized. He studied Gandhi and believed that this was best form of action to take because people have a difficult time fighting nonviolence. Dr. Kings form of action was through negotiations and demonstrations. Social worker share the value of nonviolence and work to build relationships built on integrity, modeling to their clients how to empower themselves. The importance of human relations between and among people is an “important vehicle for change” (Code of Ethics 1; Ethical Principles). Social workers need to work with integrity, in order to make others believable in their method of “promoting their ethical practices on the part of the organizations with which they are affiliated” (Code of Ethics 1; Ethical Principles). The white power structure fought against Kings cause of social injustice and they still fight social workers against the cause of enhancing the well being of humans (Birmingham 16, and Code of Ethics 1; Ethical Principles, respectfully). In order to move forward, Dr. King and social workers demand to be noticed and respected from authorities by acting with integrity and with nonviolence behavior. They both know that in order to encourage changes in attitudes and behaviors, it may take a lifetime to move a group forward. By means of negotiations and demonstrations laws can be made to protect the rights of others and enforce better treatment until attitudes can change. Using social work values, ethics, knowledge, compassion, and organizational skills for the good of others, favors Dr. King, social workers and the people they serve.

When reading this wonderful Letter from Birmingham Jail I was so amazed and taken-in from the written words of Dr. King. I felt his eloquent wording and colorful presence of facts and history demanded respect and sent notice to the topic of social injustice toward a group of people. The letter stated many tangible situations and examples throughout the life-course of black people, the Bible, and in history to promote Dr. Kings passion toward others. “Social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients to enhance human well-being, and help meet the basic human needs of all people is the same mission of social workers (Code of Ethics 1, preamble). Throughout history, both with Dr. King and the mission of social workers, there is a strong core value in a code of ethics by which both have adhered to. Dr. King and social workers fight against social injustice, and promote the dignity and worth of a person or group. Each understands the importance of human relationships, and how to work with integrity and competence. By adhering to codes and standards, whether they are personally developed or organized by a group dedicated to the development of a “social work code of ethics,” Dr. King and social workers dedicate their lives to better society.

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