Martin Luther King, Jr. & Communication Studies

Today is a federal holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In our field of communication studies, his work retains its powerful relevance today.

“Communication can save your life,” according to the first article in the newest issue of “Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies” (Hartnett, et al., p. 335, 2011, vol. 8, number 4, Dec. 2011).

Entitled “Turning Silence into Speech and Action: Prison Activism and the Pedogogy of Empowered Citizenship” (pp. 331-352), the article mentions a contribution that King made to communication studies.

The following excerpt is from page 339 of the article:

Writing from the confines of his Birmingham City Jail cell on April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a letter to a group of Alabama religious leaders who had issued a statement calling King’s activism ‘unwise and untimely.’  ‘I am in Birmingham,’ King explained to his critics, ‘because injustice is here.’  King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is part of a rich tradition of letters that illustrate the power of words that cannot be contained by a prison cell. … As King’s Birmingham statement illustrates, letters from prison can carry an authoritative moral force that is difficult to dismiss. As King told Alex Haley in 1965, his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ brought international attention to what was happening in Alabama and helped to win broad support both at home and abroad for the civil rights movement.  … Letters from prison stand at the crossroads of the personal and the political, in the liminal place where our interpersonal communication can blossom into political action. 

The authors later conclude that when communications from prison, such as King’s letter from Birmingham, “are taken to the public, whether as artistic, interpersonal, or political efforts, they can become powerful forms of enlightenment and persuasion” (p. 348).


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