Martin Luther King Jr. sent in a response letter to eight clergymen from Alabama, on April 12, 1963. The letter is a response to their criticism that King Jr. was participating in a non-violent direct action programme in Birmingham, UK. Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of civil rights, through direct action, which involved civil disobedience. “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,” he said. His stance of non-violence was indeed the key principle, since it aimed at achieving results, without inducing violence into it.
The very beginning of the response letter says that he normally does not heed the critics’ words. However, the moderate clergymen were an exception. The priests criticized the fact that he had gone to Birmingham for the direct action programme, since to them it seemed, that he was just an American onlooker and should remain one, instead of involving himself in spite of being an ‘outsider’. To this, Martin Luther King Jr. replied, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.” This reflected his one world, one mankind approach.
King Jr.’s response letter is interlaced with both, abstract and concrete language. He talks about ideals like equality and fraternity, while juxtaposing the abstract quality of the language with concrete words like direct action, marches et al. This shows Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals are in synchronization with practicality. The manner in which he says, “For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied” is reflective of his knowledge of how to deal with the authorities and how to procure action from their end.
King also strikes emotional chords, by describing the pains endured by the negro. The uses a long powerful statement to do so. “ 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 cant 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 county 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.”
Martin Luther King advances a powerful argument, while retaining the politeness. The striking manner in which he talks with utmost humility, while still retaining the power, is what makes him stand apart. He beseeches the clergymen to forgive him, for making false claims, but still puts forth a powerful response, that could not go wrong anywhere. Martin Luther King Jr.’s response letter is one based on a rhetorical situation, where he knows his audience and makes strong claims. Hence, King Jr.’s response letter has all the essential requisites of powerful expression, while appealing to emotions.
Website from where the letter was taken: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html