Martin Luther King, Jr. Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."