In an excellent essay in yesterday's Washington Post, W. Ralph Eubanks gives extended props to what is arguably Martin Luther King's greatest rhetorical achievement, his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
If the "I Have a Dream" speech showcases Martin Luther King Jr.'s oratorical skills, the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" exhibits the depth of his intellect. In its handling of the themes of law and justice, it is a literary argument in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." To make its points, it evokes theologians and other thinkers from each of the traditions of the eight clergymen to whom it is directly addressed. King quotes a Catholic saint, Thomas Aquinas, on unjust law, the 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich on the sin of "separation," and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to make the point that segregation relegated black Americans to "the status of things."
Despite the clergymen's pleas for moderation and patience, King knew that the struggles of black Americans could not wait. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' " he wrote. "It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"
Whole thing here.
Eubanks, author Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past, plans to read the letter with his children today. Which is a pretty damn good thing to do.
King's letter, fully in the tradition of "higher law," is well worth poring over, partly because it makes a general case for civil disobedience. A snippet:
There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
Whole text of King's letter here.