Martin Luther King Jr.: Master of the Sentence 

MLK, Jr., Master of the Sentence
Post by Steven K.

This month we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and for good reason. Dr. King was the greatest champion of the Civil Rights Movement and is one of the most influential Americans to have ever lived. He was an activist and a leader, a husband and a father, a role model and a martyr. Others have written extensively about his life and legacy, far more gracefully than any blog post could accomplish. (We have many of these works in our collection. Check out the call number 323.092 in the stacks, for starters.) So rather than gild the lily, I want to give you a glimpse into an often overlooked aspect of Dr. King’s identity, a secret hiding in plain sight.

Undeniably, Dr. King was a master of the sentence.

Master of the sentence. There’s a headline that won’t stop the presses. It’s not even surprising, considering his reputation as one of history’s great orators. But in an age where words are carelessly dashed off in 280-character Tweets and mangled in website comments sections, it’s worth taking the time to appreciate the skill of a true wordsmith.

I also want to make this clear: I’m not the prophet here. I’m more like the prophet’s third cousin’s baker’s apprentice who’s just heard the good news. The real prophet, the source of my secondhand revelation, is the legendary English professor Stanley Fish. But gospel is gospel, and as such needs to be shared.

In his delightful book How to Write a Sentence (2011), Fish devotes several pages of analysis to one of Dr. King’s great sentences from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963). Rightfully so, Fish declares the sentence to be “a tremendous rhetorical achievement, a sentence for the ages” (p. 55).

Behold:

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “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 “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”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Now that’s powerful. It’s a behemoth of a sentence, weighing in at a whopping 314 words. It’s the kind of sentence that your high school English teacher warned you not to write, lest you dissolve into an incoherent mess or pull a muscle. And yet, Dr. King pulls it off flawlessly, leaving his audience captivated, dazed, ashamed, righteously indignant, awed.

So, how did he do it? What makes it a “sentence for the ages?”

Fundamentally, this sentence has a body and a soul and the source of its power rests in the harmony between the two.

Its body is its grammatical structure. Technically speaking, Dr. King’s sentence is an extended chain of incomplete dependent “when” clauses linked by semicolons, which is finally completed with a short independent clause. It’s a sentence of tremendous, unbalanced tension. For over 300 words the reader is left waiting for completion—an unnaturally long time to wait, given the typical sentence length we’re used to. In a sense, it’s almost like Dr. King is slowly pulling back the bowstring of a vast longbow, with each clause his words growing increasingly tauter in our minds; yet, just when our reading muscles are ready to snap, he gently slips his fingers from the string and we’re struck—not with a heavy iron bolt, obliterating us. But with a feather. A breath, merely 11 words long.

As compelling as its structure is on its own, Dr. King’s sentence is nothing but artifice without its soul. If its body is its structure, then its soul is its content, its message. Dr. King’s message was vital to the eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement and this sentence potently captures its spirit.

In terms of content, his “sentence for the ages” was a response to critics of his campaign of civil disobedience, critics who saw his tactics as excessive, rabble-rousing, and impatient. These critics who told him to wait—identified as his “fellow clergymen” in his letter’s salutation—are the specific target of Dr. King’s tour de force response. And as we’ve already seen, he lays waste to their objections.

Once again, Stanley Fish perhaps says it best, writing that Dr. King’s response to his fellow clergymen “is at once withheld and given” (54). In writing his lengthy sentence front-stacked with dependent clauses, Dr. King flips the standard argumentative structure on its head. Instead of making his claim first, he leads with his reasons. And those reasons are weighty, myriad, and beyond reproach.

Each reason—each “when” clause—is itself justification enough to take action rather than wait. Dr. King starts with how blacks have been assaulted and murdered by both lynch mobs and the justice system alike, “at will” and “at whim” and “with impunity,” without punishment. It’s the ultimate affront to human morality and he could have left it at that, case closed. But still he persists, piling up grievance upon grievance, pulling that bowstring tighter and tighter. The shackles of poverty, his images recalling the monstrous conditions on the slave ships endured by their ancestors; the daily psychological abuses heaped upon children as young as five and six, polluting their minds with “clouds of inferiority”; verbal abuse ranging from ugly dehumanizing racial slurs to simply being denied polite titles like “Mrs.” and “Sir,” which cuts all the same, even if not as deeply; and all of these transgressions culminating in the impending erasure of black personhood. “Nobodiness,” as he put it.

On top of it all, Dr. King cleverly manipulates narrative perspective in all the horrific imagery, daring his audience to see themselves in the shoes of black Americans: “when you,” “when your,” “when you...” He wants his readers to confront those atrocities as if they had happened to them, rather than something that happened to others. It’s a shocking exercise in empathy, a head-first dive into the frigid waters of discrimination. By the end of the dependent clause chain, when the truly empathetic reader feels as if the tension is unbearable; when even the coolest, calmest and most collected observer would howl in rage and demand swift justice, even violence; then Dr. King gives us the feather: “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Not, “then you will understand why we demand vengeance.” He ends not with a blow, but with an invitation for us to understand.

That pivot in tone—from brutal and pain-ridden to gentle, even humble—is a breathtaking display of linguistic skill. Some might even be tempted to characterize it as ironic, but of a constructive sort instead of a cynical one. We should expect the rage of Achilles, but instead receive the calm resolve of Christ, the patience of the Buddha, the wisdom of Socrates. It’s almost a sacred text unto itself. As such, that final clause is the perfect distillation of Dr. King’s nonviolent movement, as good a maxim for the Civil Rights Movement as any.

One massive sentence, its body and soul in perfect harmony, a monument crafted from words rather than stone. This month, let’s remember Martin Luther King Jr. for all that he accomplished and for all that he continues to inspire. Let us remember him as a liberator of people and a master of the sentence. There’s plenty more work of his for you to discover, so get to reading!

References
Stanley Fish. (2017, December 12). Retrieved December 15, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Fish
Fish, Stanley. (2011). How to Write a Sentence. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
King, M. L., Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html


Posted by zsmith@auroragov.org On 10 January, 2018 at 4:06 PM  

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