Many turns of phrase in Martin Luther King Jr.’s renowned 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are familiar to Americans today:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
The letter, written while King was in solitary confinement after being arrested for demonstrating against segregation in Alabama, is addressed to a handful of clergymen who had themselves written a letter to the local newspaper decrying his actions. “We are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely,” they wrote. Their letter ends with a refrain that’s also familiar today: “We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
But what makes King’s letter—and not the clergymen’s—so memorable, regardless of a reader’s race or background?
“King is a master of rhetoric,” says third-year literature PhD student and Seminar in Composition instructor Lissette Escariz Ferrá. “I teach the letter as one of the main texts for my rhetoric unit because it is so rich." Escariz has included King’s letter in her syllabus every semester for the past several years as a model of impactful rhetoric—defined simply as the art of persuasive language.
“Every time I teach King’s letter, my students spark a conversation about how the inequalities King and his supporters were fighting against are still undeniably present today,” says Escariz. In part, that’s due to the way King writes.
She explains to her students that King’s composition demonstrates the foundational principles of rhetoric—ethos, an appeal to authority and credibility; logos, an appeal to reason; pathos, an appeal to emotion; and Kairos, the timeliness of an argument.
And for her, King’s words feel personal. A Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. speaking only Spanish, Escariz says she remembers reading the letter as a teenager.
Every time I teach King’s letter, my students spark a conversation about how the inequalities King and his supporters were fighting against are still undeniably present today.
Lissette Escariz Ferrá
“As an ethnic minority in the U.S., I have experienced xenophobia. When I lived in Cuba, the U.S. was a model of equality and opportunity to many from the outside,” she says. “Therefore I had this idea that laws in the U.S. were always good, especially when I was a young high school freshman. But when I read the letter, and particularly the part where King says that if you feel a law is unjust you have to stand up against it, I began to realize that equality isn’t extended to everyone. His words are very powerful.”
In her course, Escariz helps students connect that power to their own lives and to the urgency of the letter itself. “Something King does to refute the clergymen who call him an extremist is remind them that Jesus Christ was an extremist for love. He makes that connection to show that a figure they worship was once extremely controversial, just like they are making King look. When I read those lines it reminds me of what King represents to so many. He is a figure whose movement is grounded in equality and love. For me, almost everything goes back to these principles, with all the complications they include.”
After reading and discussing the letter, Escariz asks her students to select and examine a few examples of the rhetorical moves King makes. “Even though they all write about the letter, their analyses look different because there are so many complex examples to choose from,” says Escariz, who studies Caribbean and Latin American literature using a post-colonialist lens.
Their analysis is part of a cumulative plan building toward an end-of-semester research paper.
“The rhetoric section is designed to help them identify biases and also to understand how factual evidence is presented in the sources they compile for their final project,” she says.
“I haven’t stopped teaching the letter because the stakes, particularly for the African American community, are so high. It’s crucial for me as an instructor to teach texts that speak to the world outside my classroom.”