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Five Writing (and Living) Lessons from Dr. King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’

MLK wrote his letter in great discomfort, from jail, on the margins of a newspaper, then on scraps smuggled in here and there, until finally he was given a pad of paper.

5) Avoid sarcasm; choose understatement; don’t insult.

Though he’d have every right to, King did not begin his letter (click here for the text of Dr. King’s letter):

‘My Dear Fellow “Christians”’. or ‘My Dear So-Called Fellow Clergymen,’ or ‘My Dear Cult of Judas’:

He wrote:

‘My Dear Fellow Clergymen’

Though he had every right to, he did not stoop to the bottom-feeder level of Alabama’s Eugene “Bull” Connor, who Wikipedia calls an “international symbol of institutional racism.” On May 14, 1961, he allowed armed mobs to attack non-violent protestors arriving in Anniston, Alabama by bus. He turned fire hoses and police dogs on children and adults alike. He threatened to close schools to prevent desegregation. He protected Ku Klux Klansman who bombed churches. He foreswore his oath as Commissioner of Public Safety and instead unleashed terror against American citizens.

Dr. King refers to him simply as, “Mr. Connor.”

4) Take our breath away.

In one gentle, unassuming breath Dr. King acknowledges the Clergy’s urge for his followers to be patient, then in the next pounces with this:

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-country 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 go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

3) Maybe The Most Important Writing and Living Is Also The Most Uncomfortable

This Times essay describes the recent proliferation of pricey, comfy writer’s workshops with lots of tea, organic food, and, ideally, beach or mountain views. “If only I were in a villa along the Amalfi coast, I could write the next great American novel,” goes the idea.

But the most enduring writing is done from compulsion, with urgency, in whatever good or bad circumstances the writer finds him or herself. MLK wrote his letter in great discomfort, from jail, on the margins of a newspaper, then on scraps smuggled in here and there, until finally he was given a pad of paper. I imagine, based on my own writing life, that his most enduring ideas — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” — were scribbled in those margins, standing up.

I found myself inspired to write this piece today in my the midst of own privileged form of discomfort; my three children woke up nagging me to plan them activities on this Monday off, when I was still on the mend from a cold and all I wanted to do was stay in pajamas and figure out a way to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in writing.

2) Wrest power from unjust words.

In one paragraph, King repeats the word “Extremist” 12 times, adding an “Extremism” for good measure. He brings up a word full of fearful connotations, a word that’s been used against him to good effect. He decides he likes it. He lists off an excellent roster of extremists: Amos, Jesus, The Apostle Paul, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson.

Then he turns the tables: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” and finishes with a suggestion.

Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” I think we are. I’d like to be a creative extremist for love.

  • While “greatly disappointed,” he is never hopeless.

I want to be a hopeful writer. I want to live hopefully. The only reading or viewing I can abide these days must contain hope. I once finished an 800-page book and then threw it across the room. I’d wasted untold hours of my life for a sense of hope that never arrived.

King’s betrayal was exponentially larger, his magnanimity that much more awesome. His disappointment was with a church he deeply loved, and in which he’d placed so much hope and faith and love. He writes of the courage of the early Christians, who submitted themselves willingly to ridicule, abuse, torture and even martyrdom, and compares them unfavorably with their modern counterparts.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

His hope, of course, was in imitating those brave early Christians, in inspiring his followers to serve as, “non-violent 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.”

May we all be hopeful, nonviolent gadflies flying into the face of injustice, hate and cruelty.

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