When I think of Martin Luther King Jr. I think of a great speaker, civil rights activist, a Baptist Minister, a rhetorician, a non-violent protester, a martyr, and other such titles, but I do not think of a scholar. Upon a re-reading of his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" I will have to re-think my judgment.
A letter such as he wrote would be nearly impossible today, even from a scholar. As I was re-reading the letter in preparation for my yearly lecture on the Civil Rights Movement in my Christian Heritage class at Baylor University, I was struck by one thing that I had not noticed before. Sure, I have always noted King's ability to weave words into powerful figures of speech as a means of persuading his audience. Sure, I have noticed his empassioned plea for racial equality. Sure I have noticed his well reasoned defense of non-violent resistance. Yet, I had never noticed the depth and breadth of his scholarly knowledge.
King, from a prison cell without any source material rattles off quotes from a surprisingly diverse group of scholars. Among his citations are a comparison of himself to Socrates acting as a social gadfly from Plato's Apology, Augustine's claim that "an unjust law is no law at all," a comparison of segregation to a reduction of human relations to Martin Buber's "I-it" relationship, and a comparison of segregation to Paul Tillich's definition of sin as separation.
Moreover, King, in a masterful rhetorical argument of ethos, does not shy away from calling himself an extremist and quotes several famous extremists of the past, such as Jesus, an extremist for love, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.." Amos, an extremist for justice, "Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Paul, an extremist for the gospel, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Martin Luther, " Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." John Bunyan, "I will stay in Jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Abraham Lincoln, "This nation cannot survive half slave half free." Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
King wrote this masterful work from prison, drawing on and often quoting great leaders and scholars from over 2400 years of human history. Add one title to the list of those attributed to Martin Luther King Jr: Scholar!