When I was in college, I took a course on rhetoric and debate in 20th century America. In it, we looked at numerous famous speeches made by famous people: Lincoln, Jefferson, King, etc. Learning from great persuaders how to fashion a rational and emotional argument would later become useful as a copywriter and presenter. During that semester, no document we studied was more powerful than Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

I am not being glib when I say Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of the finest pieces of long copy ever written. No question Equal Rights was and is a big idea. I like LFABJ better than King’s more famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not because of content (both are awesome) but because of circumstances. King was alone in a jail cell when he wrote it.

On this, the anniversary of what would have been MLK’s 90th birthday; I think it a fine thing to reexamine this seminal document. An excerpt follows. The full text is linked below it.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”


Is it real or is it Argo?

After seeing Argo with my wife we discussed it in a nearby wine bar (ah, date night!), where she commented on how much she appreciated the history lesson imparted by the movie. We were both children during the Iran hostage crisis and I can still remember seeing all those yellow ribbons. I also recall the fervor of anti-Iranian sentiment sweeping the country. The Ayatollah Khomeini was Public Enemy #1 and our society’s hatred of him equaled, and to my memory, even exceeded the vitriol directed toward Osama Bin Laden thirty plus years later.

In any event, my wife’s remark made me think. Accurate or not, Argo is indeed a history lesson, as are many of the other big Oscar-nominated films, especially Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Even Django, for all its Tarantino-infused brio, brought forward a difficult time in our nation’s history to tell its story. Granted, Tarantino’s film is patently (and sublimely) ridiculous but still: I couldn’t help but wonder (especially as newspapers and books fade from the popular culture) if movies and videos are becoming our new teachers.

While Hollywood has always trafficked in “true stories” culled from history, rarely have they been portrayed with so much attention to historical accuracy and detail. Django aside, one really senses these new filmmakers passion for trying to get the story right, even if rubbing audiences the wrong way. For example, Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent Zero Dark Thirty depicts American torture of Muslim extremists with complete objectivity, evoking much criticism from concerned groups, including factions of the US Government. This criticism may even hurt her film’s chances for garnering top honors at this year’s Academy Awards. Yet, because of the way in which she made the movie, almost like a documentary, I believed her depiction far more than not. The same can be said for Argo and to a lesser extent, Lincoln. In all these films we get the distinct impression the makers of them are aspiring to accuracy over drama. Perhaps we have You Tube to thank for this?

Scene from movie 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Breaking into Osama’s hideout: Zero Dark Thirty

Either way, this is new. In the past Hollywood loved to infuse countless fictionalized storylines into their fare. War and Western movies always had love interests. In addition, there had to be a hero and a villain. The filmmakers were compelled to portray good and evil in black and white. Not so much anymore. Lincoln is shown to compromise his position on equal rights for black people in order to rid the country of slavery. In Zero Dark Thirty The United States employs illegal torture to try and find out where Bin Laden is hiding.

“Inspired by true events” used to mean a germ of truth might exist in the story. Now it implies journalistic integrity. Whether that’s bad or good I don’t know. However, I do know that were it not for these films I likely wouldn’t have learned about these seminal events in world history. Neither would most people.