My Dear Fellow Clergymen, begins Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exquisite Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
My Dear Fellow Clergymen.
When we’re studying persuasive rhetoric, I often ask my students to look at the first four words of Dr. King’s essay, written as the title implies as he was locked up in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in the the spring of 1963. He wrote the letter as a response to one he received from a group of clergymen—pastors, priests, rabbis–urging him to wait for the democratic process to work on its own, to back off from his nonviolent protests of racial injustice, and to implore his followers and other activists to back off as well.
I tell my students his letter is the single most perfect example of persuasive writing in Western Literature, the culmination of all the author’s spiritual and intellectual experience, the clearest articulation of his vocation and soul work. This is my opinion, granted, but I say it to them as fact. I tell them to look at the first four words. Inevitably, they look at the first words of the letter–While confined here in–and not the greeting above them.
No, I say, look again. The FIRST four words.
My Dear Fellow Clergymen.
I tell my students Dr. King has already employed a strategy of rhetorical argument. Why doesn’t he write, simply, Dear Clergymen? Why does he include “My” and “Dear“? Dr. King, from the get-go, establishes his authority. In those first humble words he places himself at the table with his audience. I am one of you, that greeting announces. I am a man of God. So are you. We are equal.
It’s brilliant. Aristotle must have smiled slyly from his grave.
My students and I read the letter. They struggle–the letter, so sophisticated in its language and rhetorical dexterity, is too high-level for them as sophomores. I know it. But I want to point them toward something they will understand, the emotional lynchpin around which Dr. King spins his ethos and logos: Paragraph 14.
The most lyrical paragraph of the essay, paragraph 14 centers around one long sentence that uses alliteration, the repetition at the beginning of each syntactical phrase of the words, “When you have seen.” I don’t think Dr. King’s slip into second person is accidental: he places his listener in the shoes of black people. The paragraph reads:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa 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. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
When I read Paragraph 14 aloud to my students, a silence bears down on the room. I have trouble keeping my voice stable. I have trouble keeping my breath as I attempt to recite the sentences with the same urgency and speed with which he has written them. Every time, my heart breaks a little.
What does Paragraph 14 have to do with anything now?
Well, I have been reticent about addressing the most recent media storm about gay rights, catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s review of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. I am not hesitant because I do not know, definitively, where I stand, but because so many knee-jerk and sub-intellectual reactions already exist in the digital universe.
This week the New York Times editorial board published an editorial piece admonishing Ruth Ginsberg for her comments that the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion “moved too far, too fast.” I was so relieved. As a woman first, and then as a supporter of gay rights. I understand what she meant; I understand what other constitutional lawyers have been arguing about gay rights: let the democratic process unfold naturally, it’s already leaning in favor of gay marriage, let the verdict fall state-by-state lest we spark a backlash. Their position is a practical position, but, to me, it’s an immoral position too.
In all the back and forth I couldn’t help but think of Dr. King. I know the details differ in these fights, as race differs from sexuality. I know the powers need different truths spoken to them. Still I couldn’t help but think of Paragraph 14. I have my own version. When you have seen your friends cast from their families; when you have seen an otherwise loving mother say to her daughter, “You may come to Easter, but you may not bring HER”; when you have seen your own conservative grandmother offer acceptance to her gay daughter; when you have heard the epithets and catcalls of your gender’s own persecution–bitch, pussy–spit at homosexuals on the street, when you have seen too and recognized what loves sees; when you have seen the singular beauty of the hanger hook line drawn up from a woman’s ribcage, between her breasts, and around the sharp edges of her clavicles; when you have felt the sting of a man so unable to publicly love another man that he carves through women’s hearts as though they wrote the Constitution; when you have seen, when you have seen, when you, when you, when you….
But Dr. King remains even in death a better writer than me. And, unlike I pretend, he actually possessed a theological ordination. He was a clergyman.
I hear his voice as I teach it. This year, 50 years after he penned his masterpiece from behind cold metal bars in the city at the hot core of our country’s wounds, clergymen everywhere should listen to his voice.
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.