Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Letter on the Letter from Birmingham

Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in Birmingham

Dear Students,

This morning as I reflected on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I sent you an email message, encouraging you to read the letter that he wrote from jail in 1963 after his arrest for leading nonviolent protests in Alabama.

Although you could have listened to a recording of King reading his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I recommended that you read it instead, or read along as you listened. As I noted in my email, King’s gift for oratory is well known, but for students of writing, closely examining his words on the page is a more pertinent exercise than listening to his voice.

What makes it an effective piece of writing? With that question in mind, consider these words in the eleventh paragraph: “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’” Here King is addressing his initial audience, the eight white Birmingham-area clergymen who criticized his protest as “unwise and untimely.” He suggests to those men that waiting to act isn’t difficult when you yourself aren’t the victim of injustice, when you haven’t, in King’s words, “felt the stinging darts of segregation.” The sentence is notable not only for the contrast it illustrates between King’s reality and the lives of his readers but also for the words that King uses to show that contrast.

Consider King’s sentence and the paraphrase that follows:

  • Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”
  • Maybe it is simple for people who have not experienced segregation to say, “Wait.”

King’s sentence is stronger than the paraphrase that follows it because of the “stinging darts.” Writing that someone has not “experienced segregation” is abstract. Readers do not feel the general experience in the second sentence, but they feel King’s “stinging darts.” Sensory details strengthen sentences by appealing to readers’ senses, and figurative language invigorates writing by making the unfamiliar familiar. King’s white readers have not been the victims of segregation, but his choice of words makes them feel the sting.

While King’s “stinging darts” sentence—a relatively short one—is laudable, the long, winding sentence that follows is nothing short of staggering.

It starts with these words: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” King presents those atrocities in an introductory dependent clause, one whose full meaning depends on an independent clause that follows. But rather than immediately turning to an independent clause to complete the thought, King expands the sentence with this series of dependent clauses:

  • 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 “n—,” 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”–

The independent clause that readers have been waiting for, the statement that completes the thought is this: “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Those words could have immediately followed the first dependent clause, but instead King offers nine more dependent clauses, ten darts that sting his readers.

Ten dependent clauses connected by semicolons followed by a dash and an independent clause, a total of 316 words: That is not a structure I recommend for the sentences you write in English 111, but it’s a valuable model, nevertheless.

Now in the wake of the violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, King’s message of civil disobedience may be more critical than ever. As a citizen, I hope you will read every word of his letter. As your writing teacher, I hope that you will return to the sentence that I have examined in detail here. Along with showing his readers why his nonviolent protests could not wait, that sentence of King’s demonstrates how to develop a piece of writing through the accumulation of detail—not just the when, but the when and when and when . . . .


King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birminham Jail.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Instititute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf.

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