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Martin Luther King, “Letter From Birmingham Jail”


In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was notorious for the harsh segregation policy against black people. In 1963, the Civil Rights Movement started a non-violent campaign to protest against the coeval discriminatory laws. Peaceful marches, sit-ins, and boycotts on segregationist merchants took place in Spring, leading to the violent reaction of the law enforcement and eventually to the arrest of the movement leaders, including Martin Luther King. On April 16, King wrote a letter to address the criticism toward the campaign made by a group of white clergymen. The document, known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” has become an iconic manifest for the non-violent protest worldwide. Besides its social, historical, and political weight, the letter is a brilliant sample of rhetorical writing. This paper will analyze style and strategies used by King, assessing as well the effectiveness in delivering the intended message.

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The Rhetorical Situation

To understand the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is essential a thorough knowledge of the characters involved and of the coeval social background. Since the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, Martin Luther King was a prominent figure within the Civil Rights Movement (Garrow 6). At the time of the Birmingham Campaign, King was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the most influential activists at a national level. After the arrest of King on April 12, 1963, a group white clergymen wrote a document urging the protesters to follow institutional ways to have their rights recognized, through negotiations and possibly courts. King’s Letter is a straight response to these religious representatives but the intended audience is much wider, and it involves all white moderates.

The message of the letter can be summarized as advocacy of non-violent direct actions and civil disobedience in fighting for social and human rights. Besides, the text aims at showing the racial inequalities within the Southern states, the brutal and humiliating treatments to which black people were subjected daily, and at lashing the hypocrisy of the non-action of most of the moderate white people. King conveys his message through a logical and fervent text, where rhetorical reasoning, strategies, as well as the emotional appeal are skillfully used.

The Rhetorical Strategies

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King resorts to a compelling blend of figurative language. Logical arguments expose the weaknesses of the system, ethical questions arise from the words of saints and philosophers, and where pathos urges whites to change their attitude towards black people radically. At the beginning of the letter, for example, King highlights how the concern of the clergymen about the unfortunate demonstrations in Birmingham sounds inadequate, considering that the power structure of the city has left black people with no other alternative (King par. 5). The following part shows, with logical rigor, how the city failed to adopt the federal laws on segregation in public schools and how the merchants did not remove the humiliating racial signs on the stores. Also, it highlights how the law enforcement showed no willingness to solve several cases of the bombing of homes and churches. Within such a scenario, the impatience of black people does not appear unjustified. Then, King adds pathos to the writing, describing the continuous physical and psychological menaces threatening the black community.

Almost inevitably, blacks start developing a sense of inferiority and bitterness towards the whites in their early years. The part where King depicts a father trying to explain to his six-year-old daughter that the public amusement park is closed to colored children (King par. 11) is especially touching and effective. Most of the reasoning revolves around the concepts of injustice and just or unjust laws. Here, the tone of the letter becomes high, and the references to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Book of Daniel, and Socrates make the letter weighty and show the rhetorical abilities of King. The leader of the Civil Rights Movement points out that any law that degrades human personality is unjust even if it made legal by the dominating group (King par. 14-19). The most persuasive argument of character, however, relates to the idea of extremism.

This section is a rhetorical masterpiece, where logical reasoning and pathos are used to convey a strong and uncomfortable message to the moderate white Christian population. After the initial shock for being deemed an extremist, King gains satisfaction gradually, underlining how his extremism is in love, precisely as Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and Thomas Jefferson, among others (King par. 25). Then, King lashes the weakness of the Church, an ineffectual power reminding more of an irrelevant social club that has lost all sacrificial spirit of the early times.

Effectiveness of the Rhetorical Strategies

Overall, King resorts to a wide spectrum of rhetorical strategies, including logos, ethos, pathos, rhetorical questions, contrasts, allusions, and visual imagery. Also, many references to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures enhance the eloquence of the black leader and the cultural weight of the document. Notably, the letter is effective for other reasons besides the literary mastery, as it shows that the rhetoric of King was not just for art’s sake, but was firmly grounded in the coeval social context. Many reminders to current news of injustice, segregation, and violent behavior make the letter dramatically real, increasing its ability to deliver the intended message. Also, the links to real life are evident when King refers to a letter received from a white brother (King par. 22) and to a couple of the positive achievements attained by part of the white church towards integration.

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In the early 1960s, the Movement for Civil Rights focused its effort to draw national attention to those cities where racial segregation was especially harsh. The Birmingham campaign led during the Spring of 1963 was part of this policy. Martin Luther King Jr., together with several other activists, was arrested during a peaceful manifestation and wrote a powerful letter during his imprisonment. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a plea for non-violent activism. The brilliant style, powerful imagery, and skillful use of rhetorical questions make the document a literary masterpiece. Through logos, ethos, and pathos, Martin Luther King shows the value of peaceful struggle, while calling the white church and moderates to take a stance against segregation and toward justice.

Works Cited

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Open Road Media, 2015. Worldcat.

King, Martin Luther, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, 1963, Web.

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