Martin Luther King Jr. The Writer
In discussion this past week, we compared the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates. The ultimate goal of the debate was to determine which figure’s conception of justice we agreed with more. As the discussion progressed, a certain trend became quite noticeable. Various students, although stating that they were still undecided on whose definition of justice was better, shared that there was something about Dr. King’s argument that resonated more with them. This indescribable quality my discussion section found in Dr. King’s letter can only be associated to his abilities as a writer.
I first read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail during my junior year of high school. This time, however, it was in an English class and the goal of the exercise was to analyze the success of Dr. King’s rhetoric. Other than being an inspiring public speaker, Dr. King was also a brilliant writer. His letter is could easily be a textbook for how to clearly and effectively communicate ideas in writing.
Although somewhat a function of the times in which each piece was written, my classmates preference for Dr. King over Socrates is very much linked to the way each author presents their argument. Socrates (through Plato) writes in this highly hypothetical, almost maze-like way. The reader is constantly forced to interpret where Socrates’ true priorities lay, and thus confusion often incurs. On the other hand, Dr. King leaves no space for interpretation, or for that matter, confusion. Through the use of tangible examples describing how segregationist laws have affected him personally, Dr. King makes it clear what he believes constitutes justice.
Not only is he impeccably clear, but Dr. King also appeals personally to the humanism in his readers. His example of having to explain to a young African-American child that he or she cannot use the same water fountain as white children is painfully effective. Dr. King knows quite well the power an innocent, naive child can wield. While Socrates dances intellectual circles around a jury, and often his readers, Dr. King makes the reader feel his pain. This comparison illustrates the fact that an argument, no matter how strong in theory, is a poor argument if not presented effectively. My classmates gravitating to Dr. King’s conception of justice over that of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, is a true testament to the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr. as a writer.