, Research Paper
English 201 G2
Essay 4 (MLK)
2 April 2001
From the Apostle Paul to Martin Buber: Martin Luther King’s use of Historical and Religious Figures in his Letter From Birmingham Jail
In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is addressing his fellow clergymen in response to their accusations of his “unwise and untimely” activities. Like most other reformers, he finds his greatest rationalization and defense from the word of God. Considering the religious affiliation of his audience, King appeals to the clergymen by instituting examples from, and associates himself with historical and religious figures. Creatively, King is establishing a common ground between himself and the men of the cloth, which causes them to respect his actions and ideas more.
Within the first three paragraphs, King already associates himself with biblical history.
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. (78)
King brings up two different subjects here: the prophets, and the Apostle Paul. However, both their intentions are the same: to spread the word of God. These two subjects become (in literary terms) Christ figures, and by relating his own course of action to theirs, King himself becomes one too. This is meant not only to defend his position, but also to appeal to the minds of his audience, in a much more deeply pious way. King automatically gains the respect and attention needed from his audience. Thus, their understanding and acceptance of King’s views and ideas will follow. They will begin to see past the color of his skin, and think of him as akin to themselves; a man who’s ideas should be respected and considered as much as anyone else’s.
There’s something else to be noted here though. Not only is King successful in relating himself to these figures, but also his ideas. When referring to his plea for social reform, he calls it the ‘gospel of freedom.’ King’s diction is very profitable to his argument. Automatically when the word ‘gospel’ is used, one associates it with God (and probably more so do the clergymen). By referring to his ideas of freedom as a gospel, he is adding religious connotations to them. Now, not only is King being associated with the word of God, but also so are his ideas. In doing this, he is alluding to the point that the toleration and acceptance of segregation and slavery etc, goes against the word of God. These things then make men less virtuous and pious.
There has been a lot of research and analization of King’s writings by other scholars, who also recognize his tactful talents. From the article “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings,” Clayborne Carson (along with Peter Holloran, Ralph E. Luker, and Penny Russell) examine King’s method of eclectic composition.
King’s appropriations of the words and ideas of others should certainly not be understood merely as violations of academic rules. They also indicate his singular ability to intertwine his words and ideas with those of others to express his beliefs persuasively and to construct a persona with broad transracial appeal. (93-94)
There have been some criticisms of King’s use of outside texts and even some accusations of plagiarism. The focus though, should not be so much on what King writes or what texts he uses, but more on what he is doing with those texts, and why he is using them. He’s not trying to educate his audience on the subjects, but to create a commonality between them and himself; to bridge the gap between black and white. He wants to be recognized as an educated scholar, and not an angry black reformer. In doing so, he creates a stronger foundation for his own ideas and views, thus giving his need for change a more rational basis.
Later, King uses a well-known philosopher in his argument.
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. (81)
Here, King is making an association between what (he feels) needs to happen, and what Socrates did. Socrates is one of the more popular ancient philosophers, known for his martyr-like actions. In Socrates’ opinion, knowledge is power, and his best resource for attaining that knowledge is through the minds of others. Nearly all the people of Athens eventually came to hate him for this, and then gave him a choice: stop harassing everyone and stay, or be banished from the city altogether. Respectfully, Socrates felt that he was doing what God wanted him to do, and accepted neither fate. In response, the Athenian rulers had him killed. King uses Socrates’ need for intellectual freedom to rationalize his need for racial equality. Carson observed, “King’s desire to stress the social and political implications of his theological training was understandable given his intended audience (95).” Once again, King is relating to his fellow men of the cloth.
In her recent biography “My Life with Martin Luther King,” Coretta King writes:
Martin believed all his life that God is both infinite and personal-a loving Father who strives for good against the evil that exists in the universe. He believed, as I do, that we who dedicate ourselves to God are his instruments in that glorious struggle (92).
This is how King’s associations with Socrates become an effective tool in his argument to his fellow clergymen. As Socrates did what God compelled him to do, so does King. The abolishment of racism and segregation is as virtuous an action as Socrates’ need for intellectual freedom. King exposes the need for complete equality as a requirement for one’s commitment to God.
Later, King integrates the ideals of another philosopher, Martin Buber.
Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-It” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. (85)
Buber is a famous German philosopher, known best for his writings in response to Hitler and Nazi’s. Once again, King uses another man’s thoughts in defense of his own argument. As Buber spoke of the segregation of the Jews in Nazi Germany was wrong because it degraded man’s own humanity, King draws the same conclusions when referring to the segregation of the blacks in America.
There is something else going on here-something very interesting. Earlier, he mentions the Apostle Paul and now, he mentions Buber. Tactfully, King is once again appealing to his fellow clergymen, and very specifically. It is very beneficial for King to use the words of both Paul (from the catholic faith) and of Buber (from the Jewish faith) in his argument, because he is making sure to appeal to all men of the cloth, and to everyone’s religious affiliation. So now, as if King had not already earned the respect needed to be heard, he has done it ten-fold by relating specifically to his target audience.
In his article “martin Luther King’s Personalism and Non-violence,” Warren Steinkraus questions the possibility of “any connection between King the famed apostle or non-violence and King the contemplative philosopher (97).” He concludes (obviously) yes, and states: “He is probably the only professionally trained philosopher of this century who has had a world-wide impact on large numbers of ordinary citizens and in the halls of government (97).” King was able to use his education to his advantage by utilizing it in his speeches and writings, thus creating an appeal to nearly all people. He does this in his Letter From Birmingham Jail by using his knowledge of theology, philosophy, and religion to create a common ground between himself and the clergymen. Their respect and full attention automatically ensues, bringing King one step closer to bridging the gap between the races.