For MLK Day, a Teachable Text

Every MLK Day, as a semi-religious ritual, I reread King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A response to criticism from eight white Alabama clergymen, this open letter, written on scraps of paper while King served time for taking part in a protest, outlines a rationale for civil disobedience of Jim Crow laws and customs. It is an astonishing document. One can sense King’s body in every wretched, joyous word. And the King that emerges is not the benign and fatherly King who sells you cars and burgers on TV. This King is confrontational, ferociously learned, full of disdain for white moderates, an American preacher in the Jonathan Edwards tradition. That’s why I read the “Letter” annually; for me, it brings to life a man, not an image.

Credit: The King Center Archive
Credit: The King Center Archive

But “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is not just an historical artifact of enduring moral and emotional value; it’s also an ingenious piece of rhetoric. I know of no better text for teaching the principles of audience, argument, imagery, and persuasion.

The “Letter” nearly teaches itself. In my experience, high school and college students love reading it (“All I knew before was the ‘I have a dream’ speech!”), and when asked to discuss it, fall readily into a Socratic sequence.

TEACHER: Whom is King trying to persuade?

STUDENT: The clergymen.

TEACHER: How does he go about persuading them?

STUDENT: Refutes their assertions point by point. Yet flatters them by saying they are “men of genuine good will.”

TEACHER: What language does he use that might appeal to this audience?

STUDENT: Lots of religious imagery. Biblical references. Classical allusions.

TEACHER: Now let me tell you something that might surprise you. King never sent this letter to the eight Alabama clergymen. But it was published in the New York Post Sunday Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. So who else besides the clergymen might King be trying to persuade?

STUDENT: Northerners.

TEACHER: What kinds of northerners?

STUDENT: White people. Political moderates.

TEACHER: What is the evidence for this?

And on we go. I never have an easier time lesson planning than when I’m teaching “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I could spend 50 minutes alone on the remarkable 316-word sentence that King unleashes in the middle of the letter:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

This sentence is not only a miniature masterwork of feeling, not only a feat of syntactical acrobatics, a tour de force of detail – it is also a savvy rhetorical maneuver. At this moment in the letter, King has to explain why he and his fellow activists cannot wait for change, why they must reject the common call for gradualism. His answer lies not just in the content but also in the form of the 316-word sentence: we cannot wait because we are about to burst, just as my words are about to burst out of these semi-colons.

This is the King I prefer to remember. The preacher, the wordsmith, the radical leader, the agile rhetorician. And if I have any say in the matter, it is the King my students will remember, too.

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