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Martin Luther King and the Power of Words

the Power of WordsEvery now and again I remember what a real privilege it is to be a writer.

Not only do we get set our own hours, go barefoot to our office, and have a commute measured in inches rather than miles, we also have the opportunity to influence hundreds, maybe even thousands of people – maybe even more than that. I’ve always been impressed with the power of words.

Today is Martin Luther King Junior Day – now a holiday in the United States. It’s a day when we honor a man who led truly peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations against the horrors of segregation that this country allowed until the 50s and 60s.

Unfortunately, even though we have a black president today and segregated schools and other institutions are against the law, we are not free of racial and other discrimination amongst ourselves. We still have real inequality, like way more black men in prison than white even considering the difference in population. We’ve just begun to question the number of shootings of black people by the police and there’s been the same kind of resistance to nonviolent demonstrations in the last few months that there was back in King’s day.

Martin Luther King was a master writer. He understood the power of words both written and spoken. An example of his best is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

This morning I listened to the talk read by a group of young people of both sexes. As they read I read along. It was a powerful experience and I suggest you take 40 minutes or so to do the same thing.

Admittedly the quotes I chose today are probably different from the quotes I would’ve chosen five years ago or five years hence. Each seems to me to speak of issues larger than segregation or white privilege.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.


Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.


Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department…As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”


I could’ve quoted the whole speech, it’s that impressive. It’s definitely food for thought with you read the whole thing or just these few excerpts.

I’d love to know your reaction positive or negative. Let’s talk about it in comments.

Write well and often,


{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Sue Chehrenegar

    Since Anne has said that she loves words, I would like to mention a few of the words that I have found in a passage in one book on the shelf next to my desk. It urges all that want to help the world overcome the problems that Martin Luther King, Jr mentioned to demonstrate these qualities:
    genuine love
    extreme patience
    true humility
    consummate tact
    sound initiative
    mature wisdom
    deliberate, persistent and prayerful effort

  • Brenda

    Love the discussion!!

    A bit unclear about “the talk” which has a link to the Letter from Birmingham Jail — is this what you meant and are quoting from?


  • Very interesting and inspiring post Anne! I don’t know exactly what the situation is in USA but sadly enough here in Europe there is so much racism coming almost from everyone against everyone…Especially during the last few years because of the economic crisis extreme right parties are on the rise and you see every other day on the news cases of immigrants being maltreated by the police. Also there are so many immigrants who drown in the Mediterranean sea trying to pass from Middle East or Africa to Europe. It really is so sad…

    • There does seem to be some connection between hard financial times and increasing fear of the other. We have people from S. America die in our deserts as they scramble north… awful.

      • Yes, I have heard about incidents like the one you mention in the borders between Mexico and USA…It really is so sad to hear people dying in this way in our times. It makes one wonder how much more we have to try for social equality and justice…There are still so many people suffering.

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