Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X in “The Ballot or the Bullet” employ personal experience in order to establish their leadership roles in the Civil Rights Movement and deter White Americans from further inaction. 1 Martin Luther King Jr. takes a civil and circumspect tone, trying to establish commonalities between himself and the clergymen, and often implicitly criticizing whites in a roundabout way. Malcolm X shares King’s desire for black liberation from white oppression, but rejects the idea of racial cooperation and the possibility for whites to understand the black struggle. Although Martin Luther King Jr. effectively uses personal experiences of both himself and biblical figures to explain his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, “The Ballot or the Bullet” challenges King’s conciliatory tone, conveying that transmitting understanding of black oppression to whites is hopeless because white understanding of racism is impossible without a shared personal experience.
Malcolm X is less conciliatory than King in his words about white and black cooperation. He only makes personal connections with his fellow blacks. In one part of his speech, he dismisses white liberals entirely, stating that “So it is not necessary to change the white man’s mind. We have to change our own mind. You can’t change his mind about us” (9). Malcolm X also extensively writes using the personal pronoun “you” throughout his speech, but his application of “you” refers to an entirely different audience than King. Malcolm X is trying to establish commonalities between all classes of blacks, while dismissing the role of whites completely. Malcolm X’s pessimistic view on the impossibility of white involvement in the civil rights movement can be related to Plato’s theory from “Allegory in the Cave,” where the free prisoner is unable to transmit his newfound knowledge to the shackled prisoners because they are unable to comprehend his new belief system without a personal enlightenment. Malcolm X is spreading black nationalism, and one major aspect of the ideal involves blacks controlling their own economy and destiny. Malcolm X tries to smooth over any divisions between blacks, stating that “I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy” (2). Malcolm X establishes that all African Americans have experience being victims, and that each black person should be fighting back against the white man, the common enemy. Malcolm X explains that classifying the Civil Rights Movement as just Civil Rights makes it restrictive because only blacks can relate to its message. Malcolm X suggests expanding the movement globally by explaining that “When you expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the UN” (7). Expanding the struggle to under the umbrella of human rights allows blacks to connect with other oppressed people worldwide. The oppressed groups all have the personal experience of having their human rights violated, so they can exchange strategies and ideas for how to combat intrusion on individual liberties.
Malcolm X’s speech challenges my initial view about King’s letter. A superficial read of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” establishes King as a man trying to make his white audience to understand racism. King was well-educated, and likely understood Plato’s theory well with his background in philosophy. Malcolm X clearly is aware of Plato’s theory, as he denies the ability of the white liberal to relate to the Civil Rights Movement at all, while supporting the expansion of the movement to include other oppressed people. It is plausible that King uses a civil tone and lofty diction in his letter to allow his educated audience to just acquire knowledge of the atrocities occurring against African Americans in the United States. Is the conciliatory tone just on the surface to make people who do not read between the lines feel good about themselves? Evidence for rebuking the facile view of King is in the difference between the calm introduction with phrases like “sincerely set forth” to the strong rebuke of segregation in the Funtown sentence with phrases such as “ominous clouds of inferiority.” King demonstrates his ability to reject segregation strongly through his rhetoric, but his rejection of the white power structure in the letter is less direct than Malcolm X, leading to the simplistic conclusion that he is optimistic and Malcolm is militaristic. The two men have similar goals, but work to achieve them differently through their writing.
Although King fails to make his audience understand racism, one way King does find a commonality with his audience is through his religious calling in the church, which establishes a personal connection with the clergymen. He was a Christian minister, and applies his vocation often in the letter to enhance his message. For example, King equates his work to biblical figures early on in the letter by expressing that “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ” (170). King references the Apostle Paul, who was a messenger for Christ. King is a messenger for the Civil Rights Movement, as he is bringing his organized movement from Georgia and beyond down to Birmingham. By using a religious allusion, King enhances his credibility with his immediate audience, the clergymen. They share the personal experience of studying the Bible, and by making a comparison to Saint Paul, King is establishing that the work in Birmingham is an extension of his work with his church. King compares biblical texts with civil disobedience as a way to convince the clergymen to accept his methodology. One such instance is when he references early Christianity, stating that “It [Civil Disobedience] 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” (176). By alluding to a text that the clergymen have likely studied closely, King relates the abstract concept of black oppression to a text that his audience understands and has maybe even referenced in their sermons. The two religious allusions are examples of ethos, where Dr. King is making his movement and purpose more credible by referencing figures who are highly respected by the clergymen.
Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes the pronoun “you” to allow the audience to relate his expressed messages to their own personal experiences. Martin Luther King Jr. overall takes a conciliatory tone, expressing his discontentment more implicitly rather than explicitly. One particular instance of King’s civil tone is when he says that “Your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations… It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative” (170-171). King admits the clergymen are right about the unfortunate nature of demonstrations in Birmingham. He establishes that part of the statement from the clergymen has some validity. King is trying to gain respect from the clergymen. Directly saying outright that “your statement is ridiculous” would make the clergymen not listen to King’s retort at all, hurting his credibility among his audience. King expresses that protests were a last resort, as negotiations have failed. The use of “you” in the passage speaks directly to the clergymen, allowing them to reflect on how their beliefs compare to King’s message. The pronoun “you” allows the reader, in this case the clergymen, to apply the situation to circumstances within their own lives. Although the clergymen cannot understand racism, they can make a personal connection to a biblical text or anything else they have studied to at least have knowledge for the reasoning behind King’s plight. The shared personal experience in religion allows King to give the clergymen situations to imagine themselves in to better understand his intent in the Civil Rights Movement.
Although King does criticize the white moderate, his circumspect tone leads to him being caught between two sides. On the one hand there is the belief that negotiation is possible and white liberals can have an impact, and on the other hand there is Malcolm X’s view that whites cannot relate to blacks and independence and organized grassroots resistance is the only way to win rights back. Malcolm X’s beliefs about the ineffectiveness of whites in the Civil Rights Movement challenge readers to really think about Martin Luther King Jr’s purpose. He entirely rejects the idea of white understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, aligning himself with Plato’s theory in “Allegory of the Cave” that explains the idea that a shared experience is required for true understanding.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Gospel of Freedom, edited by Jonathan Rieder, Bloomsberry, 2013, 169-185.
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet” Cleveland, Ohio. April 3rd, 1964. Social Justice Speeches, Web. 2009.
- Both texts available for download (here)