I taught English to juniors in high school for over 20 years. That year is devoted to American literature, so I began by asking students to answer in writing this question: What does it mean to be an American?
After discussing their answers, they got their first reading assignment: "Letter from Birmingham Jail," by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was always fun to see a whole classroom-full of deer-in-the-headlight stares, when they realized that the letter is 19 pages long.
I bring this up because this spring was the 50th anniversary of the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., and of the jailing of King on charges of parading without a permit.
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During his time in jail, King read in an article in the New York Times by several Birmingham clergymen decrying his appearance in the city and his participation in the demonstrations and boycott of local businesses.
He obtained some writing implements and crafted an answer to the complaint, an answer first published in late June, 1963.
Now, everyone is familiar with King's oratory; it is replayed on television at least every January for the national holiday in his name and in August for the anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech.
What many (especially high school juniors) don't know is that King was a writer. I thought "Letter from Birmingham Jail" worthy of reading not just for its ideas, but for the quality of the prose. That's why I assigned it, and that's why it is worth a read, or even a re-read, for us all.
In the first place, the letter is a model of reasonable argument at a time when reason often seemed in short supply. The clergymen didn't like King, whom they viewed as an outsider, coming into their city; the city government and its public safety commissioner, "Bull" Connor, were using water cannon, police dogs and even a tank against demonstrators.
King carefully explains why he belongs in Birmingham, why the boycotts are taking place and why they are both timely and morally correct. He does this by laying out rational arguments buttressed with allusions to and quotations from a great array of thinkers and philosophers in the Western tradition, from Socrates and Jesus to Aquinas and Niebuhr. He doesn't leave out our American founders, either.
If you can read the "Letter" without consulting a dictionary or encyclopedia, then you can consider yourself pretty well-educated.
But King's most passionate language occurs when he explains why the Negro is tired of waiting for his civil rights, and why that wait is exacerbated by the inaction of white moderates and the white church. This section contains a sentence of 317 words, which my students had to count as part of a quiz. I would tell them, "most of you all can't write a decent 317-word essay, much less a sentence that long."
King knew how to use imagery, too. He flavors the "Letter" with contrasts that bring home his arguments to our senses. "The nations of Asia and Africa," he writes, "are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."
These metaphors of opposition can really pack a punch. King says that "the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not ... the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate."
And, about the "laxity" of the church in promoting civil rights: "I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists."
The "Letter" is ultimately hopeful: "Now is time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial unjustice to the solid rock of human dignity." King appeals to the basic humanity and understanding of the clergymen, but he doesn't let them off the moral hook. His explanation of why the letter is so long is a beautifully ironic, yet humble, skewering of his critics.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is on my short list of non-fiction works that are essential to understanding what it means to be an American, joining the Declaration of Independence, Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia convention, Robert E. Lee's letter to his son, the Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy's inauguration speech.
At this 50th anniversary of its publication, I recommend it.
There will be no quiz.