Friday, April 1, 2011

Remembering Memphis

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

On April 4, 1968, forty-three years ago, an embittered racist took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, TN. The gunman could not stop the human rights movement begun by the Memphis sanitation workers, and he did not kill the powerful vessel for good that was Martin Luther King, Jr. A bullet could not silence the message: I Am a Man.

That was the simple sentence that sanitation workers adopted as their cause. They asked for a wage sufficient to provide a home and food for a family in exchange for lifting full barrels of garbage and carrying it from the backyard, across the front yard and to the city trucks. The city, without organized labor and rights to contractual negotiation, offered one penny pay raises every few years; thus, Memphis sanitation workers struck, communicating their need for change into four simple words: I am a man—not a boy, a child, working for pin money, but a man laboring to make a life for himself and his children, a man who should not need food stamps or other public support if he works a full-time job.

Those four words called to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He traveled to Memphis in order to march shoulder to shoulder with the sanitation workers. There, on the night before his death, April 3, 1968, in a speech now known as "A Testament of Hope," King spoke other words that continue to call to the future. Seven times he said, “I wouldn’t stop there” when considering the ages of man in answer to a question about the age in which King would like to live. This repetition functions as a bridge, linking each age and leading to King’s conclusion: he would like to live in the second half of the twentieth century because, even though “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around . . . . I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Like the slogan for the sanitation workers, these are short, simple sentences:

• The nation is sick (4 words).
• Trouble is in the land (5).
• Confusion all around (3 and not a complete sentence).
• But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars (16).

Twelve words in three short statements precede the longer sentence, the one that contains a metaphor, the one wherein King delivers a message of hope. The total of 28 words, organized as they are, is effective rhetoric at work, and King is a masterful user of rhetoric.

King goes on in this speech to say, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Parallel structure, anaphora, and word economy (each taken up in earlier posts, including February 28, 2010; March 28, 2010; and February 11, 2011) ignite these sentences. They catch fire, setting the listener’s imagination aflame. They inspire.

On April 3, 1968, King declared that he had been to the mountaintop and peeked over to see a new America on the other side. He prophetically announced that he might not get to that new place, but he believed others would. His simple, powerful sentences have helped to insure that his vision never dies.

Reading Challenge:

Read a transcript of King’s speech or better yet, visit the National Museum of Civil Rights located on the grounds of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Be sure to begin your tour with the film that describes the last hours in Memphis, especially the night of April 3, 1968.

Writing Challenge:

Write an essay about a subject that sets your heart and mind aflame. Use very short sentences, anaphora, parallel structure, and word economy to emphasize key ideas. Try to build at least one passage like the one quoted above, then broken apart into bullet points.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Today, as I post this, I recall that this day on the calendar is known as April Fool’s Day—or is it April Fools’ Day? Well, it depends upon how many fools come forward. If you stage a hoax and only one guy falls for it, then for you, April 1 is April Fool’s Day. On the other hand, if you stage a hoax and the entire population of a small city falls for it, then for you, April 1 is April Fools’ Day. The apostrophe placed before the final “s” signifies the possessive form for a single fool; the apostrophe placed after the final “s” signifies the possessive form for many fools.

By the way, the origins of April Fool’s Day are interesting. If the origin intrigues you, take a look at this site.