While King was a devoted Christian in his day, most of his public expressions have been secular. Although there might be an odd reference to Biblical precedents, his speeches and writings are not based on a theological framework. In other words, most of his discourse falls under the philosophy of humanism. This is a salient aspect of King’s rhetoric, and it consequently had a profound impact on the ethnically and religiously diverse American population. Moreover, King’s oratory was usually exceptional in nature and many listeners him as a divinely inspired leader, but without affiliating with any particular school of religious thought. While there is evidence for usage of Christian idiom, it is intricately woven into the letter in such a way as to look secular. This aspect of a lack of theological leaning is evident throughout the Birmingham letter and the passage chosen for discussion as well.
While the feminist movement did not reach its peak until the mid seventies, King was a forerunner in the concept of equality of sexes. Martin Luther King was a leader ahead of his time and a large part of his appeal to women followers is due to his reverence of them. For instance, when he writes “your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.””, King was expressing a honest sentiment felt by him and his fellow African American gentlemen.
A key element in the passage being discussed is the subtle provocation and profundity that is a hallmark of all of King’s public utterances. The provocative nature of some of the sentences in the letter must not be seen as a sign of the author’s aggressiveness. To the contrary, King had always adhered to non-violent approach to black emancipation. The farthest that King will ever go is as in “when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobody-ness””. Reverend King, in his long public life had never advocated physical violence as a means to black freedom and equality. Even in the most trying of circumstances, he always projects the principle of nonviolent civil resistance, as originally demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle against the British colonialists. In this regard, both these leaders were masters at organizing civil resistance at the foundations of which is a clever but morally lofty rhetoric of non-violence.
The other appealing element of Reverend King’s rhetoric that made it so effective in garnering public support for his cause was the ingenuous use of metaphors and lyrical constructs in his writings and speeches. For example, in the passage in question, King writes, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a N**** such a powerful public” and “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair”. Both these examples beautifully illustrate this point.
Garrow, D.J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, published in 2004.
King Jr, Martin Luther, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice and Peace, 2003
King Jr. Martin Luther, Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies, 2000
Fairclough, A., Martin Luther King, Jr., published in 1995.
Lee, R.E., The Rhetorical Construction of Time in Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Communication Journal, 1991.