Beyond Martin Luther King Day: Teaching Argument Through the Writings of Martin Luther King

Beyond Martin Luther King Day
Teaching Argument Through the Writings of Martin Luther King

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 40,772 views

For many instructors, studying the writings of Martin Luther King is confined to the month of January, perhaps to the week leading up to his birthday. In a way, this is good—at least Martin Luther King is actually remembered on the day bearing his name, unlike with some national heroes. But it is also a loss because King was a masterful rhetorician who knew how to use words to move his audience. Indeed, he had to be as he had committed himself to the monumental task of extending rights to unrecognized groups of people and to do it without using violence. He had to accomplish his goals with words, not fists. Studying his writing therefore is to analyze how arguments are built.

Points for Instruction

  1. 1

    Start with the familiar (to most): Study the “I Have a Dream” Speech. What major claim is Dr. King making in this speech? What is his dream? How does he support the claim? Take a look at King’s use of appeal. Do you see the appeal to logic? To emotions? To ethics?

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    For the rebuttal, look at “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”The letter itself is a series of rebuttals to the accusations leveled at him in the letter to which he is responding: “You have been influenced by the argument of ‘outsiders coming in…I was invited here. ...I have basic organizational ties here…Anyone who loves inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.” To the accusation that he is a criminal, he points out that the laws he broke were unjust laws, and the specific law for which he was jailed, picketing without a permit, he made every attempt to follow by obtaining a permit, but was thwarted.

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    After examining the major parts of an argument, for further practice move to a less familiar work, such as “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” written in response to a young African American woman leaving the University of Alabama due to the harassment she was receiving and the “peace” that resulted once she was gone. King employs a number of tactics in analyzing the opposition and its “blame the victim” mentality.

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    King often used quotes to support his cases---often the Bible because of his training. Who else does he quote? Why? How well does he support his case? For example, look at how, in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he quotes the Supreme Court Case Brown v. the Board of Education as well as philosopher Martin Buber on the topic of segregation to make his point.

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    King uses other rhetorical strategies as well. For example, look at how he uses parallel structure in the “I Have a Dream” speech. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” Also note does the use of repetition. It is with the repetition of “I have a dream” and “dream” and “American dream” that he structures his speech. Because a speech is originally meant to be heard, not read, the speaker must use such devices to structure the speech for the audience and give it a sense of purpose and direction.

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    Students should also study the extended metaphor King uses in “I Have a Dream” with “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…America has given the Negro people a bad check…But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” The use of this metaphor is another way King structures his speech.

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    Does King use descriptive imagery at all to build his case in “I Have a Dream”? What pictures does he paint? Note particularly the use of “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation” and “the sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

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    Take the opportunity of introducing argument to also introduce logical fallacy. Show how they apply to King, and how he often took apart the logical fallacy of his opposition to make his argument: e.g., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to the critics of his civil rights activities, “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”

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    Students may sometimes need to be taught that the use of “Negro” is of course historic, and King’s usage was the standard term in his time; today the more appropriate term is “African American.” This can be taught in the context of word choice. Some words, like swear words, can alienate an audience. Inappropriate racial terms can have the same effect-- while choosing more appropriate terms, words familiar to and accepted by the audience, can get people to listen. The words we choose do matter.

Further Exercises

  1. 1

    After having examined the major parts of argument of claim, support, appeals, have students write their own “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from—“speeches. Practice the use of different forms of argument: make a claim, support it, use different appeals, etc.

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    In “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” King showed how something we usually think o f as positive, like peace, can at times be negative. Can you do the same? Write a short essay showing how the positive can sometimes be negative (or the negative sometimes positive).

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    Certainly King argued intelligently, but his passion for his cause is also apparent. That passion also helped because he harnessed it to build his argument. How does that passion come through in his speeches? Can you write something you feel strongly about? How can you show it? Volunteers can later give their speeches, showing their passion for their cause.

King is most often remembered, rightly, for his labor in the Civil Rights Movement.

However, in going beyond that history, King can also be remembered as a skilled rhetorician.

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