Great writing: Martin Luther King Jr.

Catherine McCallum

In his book How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish describes this famous sentence from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as “a tremendous rhetorical achievement, a sentence for the ages”. He goes on to give a fascinating two-page analysis of the sentence’s effectiveness. I hadn’t read the sentence before Fish’s book, and I find it as powerful and memorable each time I read it. The sentence was King’s response to the exhortation to “Wait!”, and was preceded by this: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”

…when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at…

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