Pasting this Martin Luther King piece in from an old thread I started on Passive Voice. The article discusses why MLK frequently used the passive voice:
This passage is from page 28 (Page 16 in original paper) of the PDF version of "Public Diplomacy: How to Think about It and Improve It." Black print is from the article, not my commentary.
Online at: www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/2004/RAND_OP134.pdf
King’s treatment of adversaries is also instructive. King rarely identified adversaries.
Even when speaking of those he deemed responsible for the travails of black people, he relied
on the passive voice (indicated in bold font below), thereby cushioning the impact of his
And when our organization was formed
ten years ago, racial segregation was still a
structured part of the architecture of southern society. Negroes with the pangs of
hunger and the anguish of thirst were denied access to
the average lunch counter.
The downtown restaurants were still off-limits for the black man. Negroes, burdened
with the fatigue of travel, were still barred
from the motels of the highways
and the hotels of the cities. Negro boys and girls in dire need of recreational activitieswere not allowed to inhale
the fresh air of the big city parks. Negroes in desperate
need of allowing their mental buckets to sink deep into the wells of knowledgewere confronted with
a firm “no” when they sought to use the city libraries. Ten
years ago, legislative halls of the South were still ringing loud with such words as
“interposition” and “nullification.” All types of conniving methods were still being
to keep the Negro from becoming a registered voter. A decade ago, not a single
Negro entered the legislative chambers of the South except as a porter or a chauffeur.
Ten years ago, all too many Negroes were still harried
by day and haunted by
night by a corroding sense of fear and a nagging sense of nobody-ness.21 In this passage, the passive voice is both appropriate and effective:
the travails were in the past and have since been overcome, and effective because the
passive voice castigates past adversaries without necessarily implicating present ones. The
following passage reflects the same stance:
From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro
has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to
make decisions concerning his life and destiny he has been subject to the authoritarian
and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure [emphasis
In the above passage, King points to the “white power structure.” For King, this constituted
a fairly specific labeling of an adversary. Even this relatively innocuous labeling was
unusual, for he rarely referred to specific adversaries. On those few occasions when he did, he
seldom described them as invidiously as does the phrase “white power structure,” a term that
could be considered denigrating to white America generally and thus might inhibit his ability
to gain the support of this prospective constituency.
Instead, King preferred to characterize adversaries in more impersonal terms. For example,
he referred to the “bullies and the guns and the dogs and the tear gas” without referring
to who was controlling the dogs or wielding the guns or the tear gas. He referred to “a
system that still oppresses” without referring to who controlled or supported that system.
Nevertheless, on those infrequent occasions when King did not use the passive voice
and referred directly to adversaries, he chose labels that were intensely pejorative: for example,
“bloodthirsty mobs,” “hooded perpetrators of violence,” “close-minded reactionaries,”23
“Klansmen,” and “White Citizens Counsilors [sic].”24
King’s occasional references to adversaries also may have . . .