Martin Luther King, Jr. Criticism - Essay

Martin Duberman (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)