Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

King, Martin Luther, Jr.


Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929–1968

American orator and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of King's career.

King was the leader of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. His nonviolent approach to social reform and political activism, characterized by mass marches and large gatherings designed to demonstrate both the widespread acceptance of the tenets of civil rights and the barbarism of those who opposed them, contrasted with the confrontational methods espoused by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963) and the 1963 speech in which he declared "I Have a Dream" are considered the written landmarks of the movement. Today they are counted among history's great statements of human rights.

Biographical Information

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and was raised in a middle-class family. Following the lead of his father and grandfathers, he pursued a theological education. He studied the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, who contended that the church must work to undo social injustices, and those of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who espoused a philosophy of nonviolence. In the fall of 1951 he began his doctoral studies at Boston University and received his Ph. D. in systematic theology in 1955. That same year he rose to prominence in the civil rights movement by organizing a protest in support of Rosa Parks, a black woman who was arrested in Alabama for sitting in a "whites only" section of a public bus. Near the end of 1962 he began working to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. His leadership produced an agreement with the Justice Department that led to the desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains. In 1963 King helped plan a massive march on Washington, D.C., where an estimated 250,000 people were on hand to hear him present his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize. His campaign for voting rights, concentrated in Selma, Alabama, was met with violence from both police and civilians and resulted in President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. King continued his social campaigns until April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.

Major Works

King's written works reflect his heritage in the traditions of the southern black church as well as his knowledge of western philosophy. In Why We Can't Wait (1964), an account of his efforts to desegregate Birmingham, and Where Do We Go from Here? (1967), his response to the Black Power movement, King utilizes the Israelites' exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for the civil rights movement and suggests nonviolent solutions to the problem of social injustice. King further implements biblical theology, along with the philosophies of Gandhi and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Stride toward Freedom (1958), a discussion of the events leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, King paints a vision of a "promised land" of justice and racial equality. In the celebrated Letter from Birmingham City Jail, a commentary directed at his critics, King again displays his sermonic style and use of biblical allusions and rhetoric. Reminiscent of St. Paul's writings, the Letter has been described by Stephen Oates as "a classic in protest literature, the most elegant and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written." Wesley T. Mott also commends King for harnessing "the profound emotional power of the old Negro sermon for purposes of social action."

Critical Reception

Although often praised for their emotional power and widespread appeal, King's writings have been faulted for relying too heavily on rhetorical flourishes and for not offering concrete solutions to the social, political, and economic problems they address. In a review of Where Do We Go from Here? Andrew Kopkind commented that although King had worthy goals, he had "no real notion of how they are to be attained, or to what they may lead." In addition, nearly twenty-five years after his death, Clay-borne Carson—who had been engaged by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, to compile a collection of her husband's writings—announced that King may have plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation and other writings. These disclosures prompted scores of newspaper editorials and other responses arguing that the allegations had no bearing on King's contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1990 a New York Times editorial stated that King's "achievement glows unchallenged through the present shadow, [his] courage was not copied; and there was no plagiarism in his power."

Principal Works

"A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman" (dissertation) 1955
Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (nonfiction) 1958
The Measure of a Man (meditations and essays) 1959
"I Have a Dream" (speech) 1963
Letter from Birmingham City Jail (nonfiction) 1963; also published as Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1968
Strength to Love (sermons) 1963
"Unwise and Untimely?" (letters) 1963
A Martin Luther King Treasury (sermons, speeches, and essays) 1964
"Nobel Prize Lecture" (speech) 1964
Why We Can't Wait (letter and essays) 1964
"A Time to Break the Silence" (speech) 1967
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (nonfiction) 1967
"I Have A Dream": The Quotations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (speech excerpts) 1968
∗"I See the Promised Land" (speech) 1968
The Trumpet of Conscience (broadcasts) 1968
We Shall Live in Peace: The Teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (juvenilia and speech excerpts) 1968
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King in His Own Words (meditations and sermons) 1968
A Martin Luther King Reader (speeches and essays) 1969
Speeches about Vietnam (speeches) 1969
Words and Wisdom of Martin Luther King (meditations and speech excerpts) 1970
Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (speeches) 1972
Loving Your Enemies, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam (letter and speeches) 1981
The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (meditations and speeches) 1983
Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (essays, speeches, sermons, and interviews) 1986
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume One: Called to Serve, January 1929–June 1951 (letters, student papers) 1992

∗This was King's last speech, delivered on April 3, 1968—the day before his assassination.


Martin Duberman (essay date 1969)

[Duberman is an American educator and historian. In the following essay, he praises King's Where Do We Go from Here? for summarizing the "conflicts within the civil rights movement" but faults King's suggested solutions as either too general or impractical.]

In terms of character alone Martin Luther King is a phenomenon. He learned long ago that white hatred of Negroes reflects white, not Negro, deformities, and this has allowed him to feel compassion for the oppressors as well as the oppressed, to grow in strength even while surrounded by vilification. But recently the personal attacks on King have come from less traditional sources and must therefore have proved a greater challenge to his equanimity. Some of the advocates of Black Power and of black nationalism have begun to treat King's insistence on nonviolence as a prehistoric relic, and to mock King himself, with his appeals to religion, to patience and to conscience, as an irrelevancy. Their scorn has been modified in recent months by King's outspoken stand against our policy in Vietnam, but ironically that same stand has brought denunciation from a different quarter in the Negro community—from the established civil rights forces led by Roy Wilkins, Ralph Bunche and Whitney Young.

Faced with abuse on all sides, King has not only remained temperate but has continued to seek reconciliation—both within the Negro community and also interms of a larger alliance with disaffected whites. At the same time, he has continued to speak his mind, refusing to let pleas for tactical caution obscure the imperative responsibility he feels (which every citizen should feel) to apply ethical standards to international as well as domestic questions. To have managed all this in the face of heavy pressures and wounding accusations bespeaks a character of rare stability, breadth and integrity. What a pity he will never be our President.

King's new book, Where Do We Go from Here?, is his attempt to summarize the recent conflicts within the civil rights movement, to consider the larger context, both national and international, which helps to account for these conflicts, and finally, to suggest possible lines for action. King is far more successful, it seems to me, in dealing with the first two of these considerations than with the third, in part because of his tendency when speaking of the future to substitute rhetoric for specificity, in part because of the difficulties of analyzing this complex, appalling moment in our nation's history. That King succeeds as well as he does is additional tribute to the unruffled intelligence of this unendingly impressive American.

The book begins with the question "Where are we?" King, in answering it, makes some subtle and needed distinctions. He rightly insists, first of all, that the disruption of the civil rights movement cannot be explained, as it so often is, by resort to pat answers. The simple equation which has the white backlash growing solely out of Watts and Black Power is inadequate. The hard truth is that the decrease in white sympathy preceded those developments. With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of the civil rights movement ended—the easy phase—where white sympathy could be readily engaged against the outright brutalities of Southern life. But as King puts it, "To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood." Public indignation against the Bull Connors was achieved far more easily than was the follow-up commitment to eradicate discrimination in housing, jobs and schools—in other words, to establish equal rather than improved opportunities for Negroes.

White America showed its reluctance about equality before Watts and before the emergence of Black Power, though these developments have since served as convenient excuses for still further delays. The reluctance showed in polls which indicated that 50 per cent of white Americans would object to having a Negro as a neighbor and 88 per cent to having their teenage child date a Negro. It showed in the refusal to implement vigorously civil rights legislation—a refusal which has left segregation the over-whelming pattern of our schools (84.1 per cent in the 11 Southern states), which has left Negro voter registration in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia still under 50 per...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)

James H. Smylie (essay date 1970)

[In the following essay, Smylie examines King's use of biblical interpretation and references in his writings and sermons.]

The purpose of the following analysis is to explore the exodus theme in King's interpretation of the New and Old Testaments. Drawing upon the religious traditions of most Americans, including those brought from Africa, King defined the chosen people, oppression under this world's pharaohs, and the promised land in the light of his interpretation and acceptance of the radical demands of Jesus Christ upon his life.

(The entire section is 6181 words.)

Wesley T. Mott (essay date 1975)

[In the following excerpt, Mott assesses Letter from Birmingham Jail as an emotion-charged sermon in the tradition of "old-time Negro preaching."]

[Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail] is one of the most frequently collected items in college English anthologies and has proved the most popular reading among black and white students in basic literature courses for several years. The success of the Letter can be attributed, I think, to the remarkable confluence of three distinct rhetorical traits: King's heritage of the highly emotional Negro preaching tradition; his shrewd sense of political timing and polemical skill; and his conscious literary ability....

(The entire section is 4586 words.)

Clayborne Carson, with Peter Holloran, Ralph E. Luker, and Penny Russell (essay date 1991)

[Carson, an American educator and historian, is the senior editor and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers project and Peter Holloran is an assistant editor on the project. Ralph E. Luker and Penny Russell are editors of volumes 1 and 2 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the following essay, they consider King's theological writings as "evidence of King's effort to construct an identity as a theologian and preacher."]

What is the historical and biographical significance of the papers Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote as a divinity student at Crozer Theological Seminary and as a doctoral student at Boston University? Judged retroactively by the standards of academic...

(The entire section is 5290 words.)

Keith D. Miller (essay date 1992)

[Miller is an American educator and author. In the following essay, he examines the literary, historical, and theological influences that informed King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his famous speech "I Have a Dream," and defends King's use of "borrowed" or adapted material.]

On August 28, 1963, one hundred fifty thousand or more demonstrators sweltered in Washington, D.C., listening to fine music from Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, and other singers. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial an endless procession of speakers droned and droned. Despite the interruption of John Lewis's impassioned eloquence, the perspiring crowd began to wilt. Then, late in the afternoon, Mahalia Jackson...

(The entire section is 7300 words.)

Further Reading

Bosmajian, Haig A. "The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail." The Midwest Quarterly XXI, No. 1 (Autumn 1979): 46-62.

Discusses structure, rhetoric, and style in Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Fulkerson, Richard P. "The Public Letter as a Rhetorical Form: Structure, Logic, and Style in King's Letter from Birmingham Jail." The Quarterly Journal of Speech 65, No. 2 (April 1979): 121-36.

Analysis of King's argumentative techniques in Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Gasnick, Roy M. Review of Strength to Love, by...

(The entire section is 558 words.)