Martin Luther King

"Letter from Birmingham Jail"

King wrote this letter while in jail in Birmingham.  He was responding to an open letter by several clergymen encouraging him to wait for civil rights and to avoid breaking the law to achieve his ends.  They also expressed the standard white Southern sentiment of the time that the problems in the local area were being caused by outside agitators.
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
King responds to the accusation of being an outside agitator by comparing himself to Paul answering the "Macedonian call."  This kind of connection to the Bible was especially popular with Puritans, but is not unusual for other Christians.  The term for this connection is typology.

King's response sets forth the rationale behind civil disobedience.  He was influenced by Ghandi, who helped end British rule of India.  Ghandi had been in turn influenced by Thoreau.  King, however, also taps deeply into his own Christian heritage and bases civil disobedience in his faith.  One should generally obey the law, but disobedience becomes not only a right but an obligation when the law is unjust & therefore breaks divine law.  For example, he refers to the disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to the law of Nebuchadnezzar mandating idolatry.  The purpose of law is to establish justice -- unjust laws therefore have no validity.  Hitler's actions were legal, while those of the underground fighters were illegal.  Whose actions were right?  Whose actions are right in Birmingham?

"I Have a Dream"

Here are some images of the march on Washington.

King worked for freedom and equality for all Americans.  Freedom and equality are the hallmarks of classic liberalism.

King bases much of his argument on the statement coined by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal." Proposition was the word used by Lincoln. King chose to use the word creed, which is traditionally a statement of religious beliefs. Both words are used to describe the idea that all men are created equal, but the impact is different.

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now."
King fights gradualism, the belief that things gradually, in the next generation or two, get better. King believes we should improve things now.

Notice the way King uses repetition to heighten the impact of his message.

The "I Have a Dream" speech ends with the Negro spiritual hymn "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last."

King uses the terms "nullification and interposition."  The governor whose lips driped with words of nullification and interposition was of course Alabama governor George Wallace.  He had recently been inaugurated as governor of Alabama, and in his speech proclaimed "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."  He tried to "nullify" unpopular federal laws and "interpose" the state between the federal government and the people.  He did this literally by trying to physcially block the integration of the University of Alabama.  This event had happened only days before the march, and the image was still strong in their minds.

"I've Seen the Promised Land"

King delivered this speech on April 3, 1968 -- the day before he was assassinated.

He was in Memphis to support the strike of black trash haulers, who could pick up trash but couldn't drive or even ride in the trucks.

In this speech, King recalls an earlier assassination attempt that he survived.  He knows that he still is a target & that he might be killed.  He believes that his sacrifice will be worthwhile because his people will reach the goal of freedom under his leadership.

King once again reveals his profound connection to the Bible and to the religious tradition that helped form America.

"I've been to the mountaintop"
Although Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, he was allowed to climb a mountain and look over at it just before he died.  Thus King sees Moses as a model for himself.  This kind of connection to the Bible was especially popular with Puritans, but is not unusual for other Christians.  The term for this connection is typology.
"I've seen the promised land."
"Promised Land" here is allegorical. Allegory is a way of interpreting the Bible wherein one item has a symbolic meaning.  In Huck Finn, Jim used allegory in his interpretation of the dream.