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.
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.