MLK’s Civil Discourse Provides Guide for Today

Last week, President Obama issued a call for civility in light of the AZ tragedy.  Passionate debate is a freedom we should cherish in this country and doing so means exercising it with critical thought.  We should engage our adversaries rather than viewing them as enemies to be taken down.  Just because we disagree with someone, does not give us the right to demonize them. It’s easier to allow our rage to guide us, but it takes a great deal of restraint, critical thinking and empathy to fully resist violence while fostering change. 

One of our country’s most famous non-violent resisters is Martin Luther King, Jr. and there is much more to him than his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is arguably one of the most well crafted persuasive pieces ever written.  In it, King eloquently argues without name calling or character attacks, but his passion is evident throughout his letter and the result is something all Americans can benefit from studying especially now.

The climate of America in 2011 and in 1963 is very different in many respects, but we still struggle with trying to create a better nation.  All Americans want this, but we differ on how to achieve the goal.  Real conversation followed by hard work is the key to our success.  It was in 1963 and it is in 2011.

In 1963, King was arrested for participating in a march because no parade permit had been issued by city officials. While in jail, he responded to a letter published in a city newspaper from eight clergymen called “A Call for Unity.” King’s response is extremely well crafted especially considering it was written in the jail cell on scraps of paper smuggled in for him.

When this letter was written, King was not the wildly known and respected civil rights leader we know him to be today. In the views of many, he was just a black man in a jail cell up to no good. But King was extremely well educated. He graduated from Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. His education, passion and control are evident throughout his letter.

The best arguments use a combination of all three appeals—the emotional, logical and ethical to persuade. King uses all three appeals to persuade his readers. It is nearly impossible to determine how readers make their decisions, so strategic arguers use all three methods.

King uses the emotional appeal to attempt to get his readers to feel something and does so quite successfully especially when he draws upon examples any parent can relate to. He says, “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 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…”

Thankfully, we no longer confront formal segregation.  Still, we deal with adults acting poorly and this continues to confound children and their parents.  Today’s parents struggle as they try to explain to their children how and why the AZ tragedy happened. 

King uses the logical appeal when he provides facts and evidence in his appeal. At times, he even appears to be educating his readers. He says, “in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community.” The ethical appeal is also evident throughout his letter as he builds his creditability by using fair-minded language, citing experts and explaining his own expertise. King does this very convincingly when he tries to explain the difference between just and unjust laws. He says, “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King continues, “There is nothing new about this type of kind of civil disobedience.” He cites the early Christians, the Boston Tea Party and even the Hungarian freedom fighters confronting Adolph Hitler’s legal actions in Germany as examples.

The use of fair-minded language is far too rare today.  We also need rely more upon facts, and evidence when we argue with one another. 

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is worth viewing, but it is by no means his greatest work and it does not adequately reflect the true measure of Martin Luther King Jr. We can learn a great deal about civil discourse by studying King at his best.  “Letter from Birmingham Jail” provides an excellent example of how to craft a persuasive argument without using violent rhetoric.


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