Communications Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Franklin Walton, Artist, Writer, and Communications Counsel

As the years pass, we will inevitably come to new appreciations of the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to social justice and American values. Readers at will find insights about that from people better qualified than me.

I can, however, offer a few PR insights drawn from one of the most masterful documents of policy communications in the last century.

Communications Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama Jail (1963) – Source: Twitter

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written after his imprisonment on April 12, 1963 in the Birmingham city jail following his participation in non-violent demonstrations against racism and segregation. While incarcerated, King read a newspaper which printed “A Call for Unity” written by eight Alabama clergymen criticizing the demonstrations.

King wrote his response – at first on the margins of the newspaper, and then in rough drafts exchanged with his lawyers. It was published four days later. You can read the full text online from many sources; I recommend reading it here, a digital copy of an April 16 1963 typescript available online at the Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

What PR people can learn from the Letter:

  • King took the occasion to address not just the crisis but to put it in a historical and moral framework. Had he only addressed the news cycle, we would not be reading the Letter today. The long- and the short-term must be linked.
  • He demonstrates expert use of rhetorical techniques. The opening sentence is both reserved and a stomach-punch: “While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement . . .” (Understatement.) Effective advocacy requires nuanced, acquired skills in expression.
  • King was acutely aware of the dramatic context of writing “from jail.” Nowhere does he focus on his own experiences (otherwise reported to have been abusive), although toward the end of the letter he does cite the cruelties of police officers to women and children who had been involved in the protests. King leveraged the situation without self-aggrandizing. Seizing the rhetorical power of a situation need not be selfish.
  • Because of the depth of King’s intellect, he was able (without a Google search or even a library) to bring to bear references from the Bible, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Martin Buber, Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot and others. There is no better demonstration of the value of a liberal arts education.
  • While presenting King’s opposition to the clergymen, the Letter is respectful of his opponents’ human dignity if not their opinions. In the first paragraph he writes he hopes to respond in “patient and reasonable terms.” In the penultimate paragraph he expresses humility with no self-doubt: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” We can harshly criticize opponents’ positions without demonizing or inhumanity.
  • King calls for “the interrelatedness of all communities and states . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere . . . We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Us-vs. -Them divisiveness is not required to be forceful or win an argument.
  • King understood the power of “re-framing” long before political consultants had that term in their vocabulary. Near the end of the Letter, he reminds readers that African-Americans have a founding claim to North America that transcends traditional views. He re-frames the whole conception of African-Americans while at the same time asserting transformative optimism: “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our fore-parents labored here without wages; they made cotton king and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation – and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”

King consistently showed all of us how to look at the world – and communicate – with new perspective.



  1. Don Bates on at 10:08 AM

    Thanks Frank. A great reminder of what we owe to Dr. King and what we can learn and apply from his words and deeds. He would applaud your contribution to human equality and human rights. I do, too.

  2. Don Bates on at 10:12 AM

    Ugh, I misspelled my last name in my previous post. And I teach writing and editing!

    • fays on at 10:42 AM

      No worries.
      We corrected it.

  3. James Arnold on at 11:30 AM

    Outstanding use of an an original to highlight moral and rhetorical lessons. Thanks Frank. I’m going to repost on FB.

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