Many remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a social activist, a man who led demonstrations, and a powerful speaker; but I have always most admired King for a skill sometimes overlooked. Though his proclamation of “I have a dream” still reverberates through our nation’s social fabric, it was not his voice that made that speech so potent, but his words.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a phenomenal writer. His speeches are a master’s course on how to write for public speaking (concise declarations, vivid analogies, etc.) and his lesser-read essays and letters offer even more to the argumentative writer. One particular sample of King’s superb English command comes from his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” wherein he writes to the local Alabama religious leaders, encouraging them to share his sense of urgency in the matter of desegregation and social justice.
In his exhortation, King includes this, the single greatest, most powerful and epic sentence to originate from an American’s hand. It is a 320-word sentence; it is perfectly grammatically correct; and it is resoundingly powerful. Read it:
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, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight 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 little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “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” men and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when 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 tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and 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.
If we could harness just a sliver of King’s passion and a small dose of his writing talent, what great changes could we coax in our world today?