Martin Luther King, Jr. uses subtly oppressive language in both his, “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and his, “I Have a Dream” speech. The primary current draws attention to nonviolent action aimed at ending the long-term widespread violent oppression which kept black Americans living in poverty and fear. One of the many secondary currents whispered of the “polite bonds” of female oppression. It is hard to idly dismiss the import King attached to the image of hands out-stretched in “fellowship” and “brotherhood.” Especially, when contrasting such vivid imagery to the subtle imagery of females as property.
One must take into consideration the intended audiences and the norms of the times. In King’s “Birmingham Letter” and supplementary “Dream” Speech, vast differences existed between the intended audiences. The letter was directed at “[King’s] dear fellow clergymen” (“Birmingham Letter” 512), who were a group of white male religious leaders spoken to as equals, colleagues, and what’s more as the elite representation of a gender-biased patriarchal religious body of advocates-to-oppression through refusal-to-action. In contrast, King’s “Dream” Speech was addressed to an incredibly large body of black and white civil rights advocates gathered in the National Mall–under the stern gaze and momentous shadow of Abraham Lincoln–on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. At one point in the speech King says, “the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize their destiny is tied up with our destiny” (“Dream” 2). The entwined destinies King spoke of belong to the American citizens of 1963 and their future generations. As a member of those future generations, I find King’s terminology striking. I recognize terms like “white brothers” which King used in a gender-inclusive manner as words which are in actuality gender-specific and technically oppressive.
Knowing who King’s “Letter” was written to allows today’s reader to understand why King used wording which is oppressive to women. The men he wrote to would have recognized his plea to the senses of inner humanity, his argument to the political with philosophic reasoning, and his use of the passion of personal experiences to direct an indictment of “Wait!” But, the men he wrote to may not have been open to any speech which challenged the “traditional role” of women. And while King was concerned with the implications of “Wait,” he also would have recognized the concept inherent in his own use of oppressive language and the legitimate concern of women who might have heard “Wait” in his rhetoric. In fact, I find it hard to believe that with the deliberateness apparent in his words, he didn’t recognize his own use of women to further his arguments.
In the midst of powerful family imagery King furthers his case with the line: “…when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’…” (Birmingham, 516); this line is important because it epitomizes the subtle oppression within King’s work. “Mrs.” as a title of respect is quite controversial in my mind, after all the title implies “property of Mister.” Here it becomes apparent King has embraced the challenges of racial equality at the expense of gender equality.
He continues the “superior” masculine imagery with “…men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice…I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (Birmingham, 516). King has raised black males from the racist reference “boy” to the equal status of “men,” yet, women are left in a “belonging to” status. Needless to say, at the time of King’s speech women were a force in the fight against oppression, think: Rosa Parks (the rock that rippled).
With that in mind, I find myself curious as to how the force of women who gathered in the National Mall felt about King’s closing lines: “when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…” (“Dream” 5). Did the women of King’s day hear those words and wonder when would be their time? Did they hear the subtle message of “Wait!” that King so vigorously argued against in the Birmingham “Letter”? Or was it more simply, an understanding that while not directly mentioned women too were part of the consensus of “black men and white men” who King desired to see joined in “brotherhood?”
Note that in “Dream” King says: “This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned” (“Dream” 2). King uses the gender-biased language of the “Founding Fathers” to support his call for equality, while simultaneously assigning the feminine to America–a patriarchal country founded on laws created by white men. In this part of the speech the feminine is used negatively as King accuses the feminized “America” of giving “her” black citizens a check “marked ‘insufficient funds.'” Regardless of whether or not the subtle oppression of women was recognized by citizens of King’s day, I understand that King’s priority was the racial equality which in essence would include the women of all races. Though, I personally can’t help but looking critically at the underlying meaning behind King’s subtly oppressive words. Valuing the importance of King’s message, I think it is safe to suggest that citizenry also recognized and over-looked those portions of King’s speech which register as gender-biased.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Ideas Across time: Classic and Contemporary Readings for Compositions. Ed. Igor Webb. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2008.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” 2 August 1963: Washington D.C. AmericanRhetoric.com. 15 February 2009. .