The previous Tricks of the Trade article explained applications of parallel sentence structures for creating flowing, rhythmic writing. Now, in this new Tricks of the Trade article, I want to share examples of parallel structures at work in the prose of a powerful, canonical essayist. I am
Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as our ongoing example for Tricks of the Trade, since King’s essay showcases all of the techniques discussed in this series—and since it uses each of these techniques many times over. Let’s turn once again to MLK’s classic civil rights essay as we explore examples of parallel structure at work.
About reading these passages: I have color coded the parallel structures within the passages below. In some passages, you might notice two or more colors. Each color is a different parallel structure pattern within the example.
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown.
The sentence below (which occurs several pages after the example sentence above) uses the same parallel structure seen above by using the phrase “just as”—but this time King uses the phrase to establish a parallel between his actions and those of the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates. This repeated phrase, “just as,” shows how parallel structures can link ideas across different sentences, paragraphs, and pages. From there, MLK will use another parallel structure for comparing the actions of nonviolent resisters to the teachings of Socrates:
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
King also uses parallel structures from sentence to sentence to showcase the larger thematic unity those sentences share. Here’s an example:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?
By the way, have you noticed the repetition of Christian and Socratic themes in these passages? King brings up Jesus and Socrates quite often in this essay. Why? Considering King’s original audience (eight clergymen who had spoken out against his actions in Birmingham), these two examples from religion and western culture are perfectly fitting. They are precisely the best examples that King could have used for winning over his audience. In the course of his letter/essay, King also invokes the the Founding Fathers, the Apostle Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think King uses such a range of (white and Jewish) figures to validate the points he makes in this essay? This side-note takes us back to the first trick of the trade: writing for our audience. If you missed that (crucial) article, click here to read it.
In addition to using parallel structures to organize and align long sentences (as seen above), King also uses parallel structures in short sentences—and to great effect. Consider this famous sentence drawn from King’s essay:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Here are more short sentences with parallel structures:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
A Few More Examples from MLK
Here are more examples of parallel structure within “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I find especially powerful. Read these passages aloud, and as you do so, feel their undeniable passion and power.
Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
That last example illustrates how, by being nearly the same, parallel structures emphasize their seemingly small differences. Why is the use of God in place of you effective in that second parallel structure? What statement does that small change make? What is the greater evil, in MLK’s eyes: to be impatient for one’s rights–or to wait too long? King gives us the answer: it’s right there in the small one-word difference between those two parallel structures. Read it again and consider this point.
Diction: Finding the Best Words
Although the way we structure our sentences is important (as we have seen), equally important are the words we use within those sentences. With that point in mind, the next set of articles in Tricks of the Trade will help you strengthen your word choices by sharing specific methods for finding the best words to convey your ideas and assertions.
- Diction: Finding the Best Words (I will post this article soon.)
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).