Monday, January 16, 2012

Remembering Martin Luther King's rhetoric

          On the Martin Luther King holiday, we should recall that King was a superb advocate. Many legal writingKing professors use King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to illustrate persuasive techniques. King wrote the letter to a group of clergymen who had criticized his recent activities. This passage illustrates his skill in refuting their arguments:

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. . . . The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

         King then presented moving examples as he asked readers to imagine having 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 . . . .” That language appears in a lucid 316-word sentence, which spectacularly breaks the usual guideline to keep sentences short.

         Near the letter’s end, King effectively used antithesis:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

        The rest of the letter is a treasure trove of examples of persuasive writing. 

(jdf)

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