Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well-known as a reverend, a rousing speaker and the leader of the Civil Rights Movement that changed the United States forever. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that Reverend King was an amazing writer.
While he wrote his own sermons and speeches, the skill behind those works often gets put aside in favor of discussions about King as an orator and his ability to move a crowd. It is Dr. King's way with the written word that is essential to his rhetorical success, and it is this ability that I will explore in what follows.
Probably the best example of Martin Luther King's skill as an author is the document known as "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It is a wide-ranging piece, and King is in full command of references that run from the Bible to ancient and modern philosophy — he even quotes T.S. Eliot near the close of the letter.
The letter is dated April 16, 1963. King had been in Birmingham to lead a nonviolent protest and was in jail on the charge of having a parade without a permit. Given the stakes involved and the magnitude of what King was fighting for, arresting him on the charge of holding a parade without a permit might seem ridiculous to some today, but King is very careful in outlining the exact problem:
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
Whereas others might be dismissive of such a charge, Dr. King is very specific and clear about his objection to his imprisonment. It is this kind of care in terms of craft that one finds throughout "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" which makes it such a valuable document for the history of the Civil Rights Movement and as a piece of writing on its own merits.
An interesting word animates the early parts of the letter, and that word is "tension." Even more than 50 years removed from the protests, a viewer of the news footage of the standoffs between the police and the protestors can sense the heated air between the groups, and one is tempted to say that that atmosphere is riddled with tension, but Dr. King had an interesting perspective on that word:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Dr. King has taken a word, tension, and not only diffused its main associations with violence about to erupt, but also elevated a different kind of tension into an intended goal of this human endeavor. By tying "nonviolent tension" in with the Socratic search for truth, King communicates that the journey will be a struggle and sometimes ugly, but it is something that must be done, no matter whom it makes uncomfortable, because real advancement is at stake. Later in the letter, during an excoriation of "white moderates" who agree with his goals but not his methods, King elaborates on where this tension comes from, and what it reveals:
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Like the best teachers, Dr. King approaches this concept of "nonviolent tension" from multiple perspectives, to be sure that it is understood. Upon reaching the second metaphor of the boil, the reader understands King's premise that this tension will be there anyway — that the protestors are not the real source of the tension. Furthermore, by combining the two illustrations King provides, the reader can see that the tension is too poisonous to leave alone and that the advantage to be gained by exploiting this tension for his cause is too great. In explaining why he does what he does in the way he does it, King convinces the reader that there can be no other course of action.
Beyond his skill at designing an argument, as demonstrated by his use of "nonviolent tension" above, Martin Luther King, Jr. also possessed the ability to construct a memorable sentence. Although this part of the writer's art is often maligned as superficial, King understood that the ability to "turn a phrase" would make his arguments easier to digest and remember. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" contains many memorable phrases, and at least one that has surpassed its source in notoriety: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." People may argue about the content of this sentence, but its power as a statement of purpose is undeniable.
Less famous, but no less memorable, is how King phrases his disappointment in those he thought were his allies: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
"Letter from A Birmingham Jail" is a statement of purpose and method, but it is also a document rich in literary and philosophical value. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invokes names like Socrates, St. Augustine, Lincoln and Niebuhr to show that his mission is the next in this storied line of thought and action.
Dr. King's arguments were, of course, made up of the words that he used. Those words evoke connections and resonate with readers decades after they were first written because they have the ring of truth and give the entire document a sense that King's moral victory is inevitable.
Explore this the language of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" further with our list of vocabulary words drawn from the historic text.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper