I have been teaching English for almost eighteen years now, and for each one of those years, I have read something by MLK in at least one of my classes. His name and works always find a way into the classroom. For the purposes of this post, I’ll talk about two examples:
(1) If you want to teach argument, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”(1963) is the quintessential piece. Appeals to logic and reason (or what we call “logos” in the biz), appeals to emotion (or “pathos”), appeals to his own character (or “ethos”)– he’s got all the bases covered. I could go into detail about how he does this, but that’s another post.
For now, I want to zoom in on a particular passage from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one that is just two sentences long:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” 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-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 “n*****,” 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.
As always with King, it’s not just what he’s saying here but how he’s saying it. Strictly from a rhetorical standpoint, his passage is remarkable to me, for several reasons. First, he’s worked in some great metaphors in there– e.g. “stinging darts of segregation” and “airtight cage of poverty” and “ominous clouds of inferiority.”
Next, it’s an excellent example of the rhetorical device known as anaphora– the repetition of a word or phrase and the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. So, in this case, we have a series of dependent clauses beginning with “when.” The repetition of “when” lends some rhythm and unity to the piece.
Speaking of the dependent clauses, did you notice how the “when” clauses get piled on and piled on? At the end, the reader is saying, “Whoa! That IS a lot!” To me, this is an example of how the form of this passage mirrors the content; the repetition of the clauses underscores the overwhelming burdens African-Americans have to carry.
Finally, this passage is a perfect way to teach the usefulness of the periodic sentence– which is a sentence that withholds the main subject and main verb until the end. In this case, we have dependent clause after dependent clause (ten, by my count), until finally, we get to the main subject (“you”) and main verb (will understand”). Again, this is the form mirroring the content: the passage is about how long the African-American community has had to wait for change to occur, so now, as readers, we have to “wait” until the end of the sentence to see the main subject and verb. So brilliant! (King, I mean… he’s the brilliant one, not me…)
(2) MLK also ties in perfectly with that high school staple Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960). Now, even someone reading this book for the first time can see that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shares a lot in common with Martin Luther King. What’s cool is that King himself saw this connection. In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait.
The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called “The Sword That Heals,” which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe “the just and powerful weapon” of nonviolence. Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him. The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.
Suddenly, Atticus’ daughter Scout– blissfully innocent as always– comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he’s the father of one of the boys in her class. When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it’s as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him. The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted. Later, Atticus– ever the wise sage– says the incident reinforces the fact that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human.”
That’s the incident in Mockingbird. Here’s what King had to say about it in Why We Can’t Wait:
“We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.
“Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force. I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.
“To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice.”
I haven’t taught Mockingbird in a decade, but I’d encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection. Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. Students may not always believe this, but it’s true.