Monday, February 15, 2010

Martin Luther King and Persuasion

By Kevin L Barry

Before reading Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", the extent of my knowledge on the Reverend was his most famous "I have a dream" speech, only. Reading it now, I am most struck by the character of the author himself. I knew he was a passionate man and a powerful orator, but am now interested in analysing some of the more interesting parts of his character.

King succeeded in a rare balancing act. He was a highly introspective and logical scholar, yet a pious reverend at the same time. He demonstrated this in his letter through appeals of logic, and through appeals to the heart. Throughout it all, I am impressed with King's mastery of human persuasion.
It is rare today to see a leader defend his views with logical reasoning, but King does so with eloquence.

A great part of his letter is a step by step rundown of various issues his opponents have, but several excerpts spring to mind. The clergymen have asked him why he would butt into Birmingham, but King does not pen down an, "How dare you?" in outrage. Instead, he starts building pieces of evidence supporting his case. He gives his impressive credentials in the field. Knowing that is not enough, he details how he was invited to Birmingham by town representatives. To his Christian audience he relates his cause to biblical ones, saying that it is his Christian duty to interfere when injustice has taken place. To make sure no hole is left unfilled, he states a final truth, that Birmingham is indeed rife with injustice.

He does not stop the clear headed thinking anywhere in his letter. Later, he writes, "You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis ... that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

He guesses a doubt in the mind of his audience, and validates the importance of the audience's opinion. He then used the same idea raised by the audience against them, and argues logically, saying that negotiation is indeed necessary and without direct action negotiation would not occur. He does not scream his point, nor tell his fellow clergy that they are outright wrong. His subtlety worked well on these occasions.

At the same time, King's speeches were strong because of their emotion, and this letter is no different. King gives a heart-wrenching appeal to the demand of "wait", of which this line is but a small part: "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait' ... but 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."

It is not just segregation, it's the 'stinging darts of segregation" which plague black people. It is quite easy to empathize with the Negro father, who stammers to his daughter. The "ominous clouds of inferiority" hang over the reader's minds as well, and the term "little" invokes a great feeling of sympathy of the child. King influences his reader's emotions extremely well.

I could go on about either of these topics endlessly, as King's skill in both subjects is among the best in history. His character and ability to argue from both sides of the spectrum allowed him to achieve what others could not, for being too emotional like Malcolm X, to not being nearly so like many who stood aside and are not remembered.

If you liked this and live in Ozone Park, head over to and eat pizza.

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