Letter From Birmingham Jail
In Kings essay, Letter From Birmingham Jail, King brilliantly employs the use of several rhetorical strategies that are pivotal in successfully influencing critics of his philosophical views on civil disobedience. Kings eloquent appeal to the logical, emotional, and most notably, moral and spiritual side of his audience, serves to make Letter From Birmingham Jail one of the most moving and persuasive literary pieces of the 20th century.
In Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963, King’s campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and segregated hiring practices drew nationwide attention when police turned attacks dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators. King was jailed along with a large number of his supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. When white clergy, strongly opposed to Kings position on nonviolent passive resistance, issued a statement urging the blacks not to support the demonstrations, King penned a letter of remarkable eloquence which spelled out his philosophy of nonviolence disobedience. In Letter From Birmingham Jail, King expresses his extreme disappointment over the criticism of his leadership by Alabama clergymen, his understanding of why oppressed people must resist their oppression, and his deep faith in the fundamental decency of all Americans.
In Letter From Birmingham Jail King demonstrates exceptional literary prowess through his mastery of several rhetorical strategies to persuade. Kings strategy to influence his audience in Letter From Birmingham Jail is that of a three-pronged approach. In an attempt to sway his fellow clergymen King argues his position with passion and conviction as he respectfully appeals to the logical, emotional and spiritual psyche of his critics.
Kings first attempt to reach his reader is through his appeal to their logic or reasoning. He does this by presenting a direct relationship between the reasoning for his position against segregation and argument for its resulting actions of civil disobedience by those oppressed by it. This approach is most evident when King gives the reasoning for his statement, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (160).He deduces the fact that the white moderate does not seem to recognize the gravity of their non-action. King further declares that laws are established to promote justice and with their current amoral application, civil resistance to those segregated laws by blacks is justified and inevitable.
King continues he logical argument when he exhorts the reader to analyze the quote of an elderly black woman who comments, “My feets is tired but my soul is at rest” (168). King acknowledges that although her statement is grammatical incorrect, and her lack of education apparent, she is still cognizant of the magnitude of injustice suffered by Blacks under segregation.
King understands that to communicate such a controversial position effectively; logic alone will not be sufficient. To reach even deeper into the psyche of his reader King also attempts to appeal to the readers emotional side. By presenting vivid details to describe the plight of himself and other Blacks, King offers the opportunity for us to vicariously experience the heartbreaking emotions in the daily lives of African Americans under the laws of segregation. These poignant images are detailed with striking clarity when King writes, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your sex-year-old daughter why she cant 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” (157-58).
A further attempt by King to elicit an emotional response to segregation is through his liberal use of metaphors and word repetition. Through his use of the extended metaphor of a rainstorm King moves the reader through the dispirited emotions of the “dark clouds of racial prejudice,” “deep fog of misunderstanding” and “fear-drenched communities” to the promising vision of a future that illuminates with “the radiant stars of love and brotherhood” that in some not too distant future will “shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (169). Finally, Kings use of repetitive language punctuates his appeal to the emotion by emphasizing his points as if they were accompanied by the pounding of his fist. King builds both emotional momentum and power when he writes, “Was not Jesus an extremist,” “Was not Amos an extremist,” “Was not Paul an extremist
Kings final approach at persuading the readers of Letter From Birmingham Jail is one true to his natural calling; an appeal to the spiritual nature of man. Born the son of a Georgia minister, King is strongly influenced by the spiritual principles of Christianity. Since religious leaders of the community were often the most respected and admired, King saw the church as a means for great social change for African-Americans. By quoting religious leaders like St. Augustine, “an unjust law is no law at all” (158), King reminds his clergy brethren that his first calling is that of a spiritual leader and his mission is one that is of the highest moral calling. King further demonstrating his knowledge of the conditions and circumstances of early Christian leaders when he draws a comparison between his situation and that of the apostle Paul when he writes, “Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid” (160). Petitioning to the readers moral conscience King beliefs that righteous minded individuals are more apt to intervene against oppression if asked to question their own ethics.
Through his references to history, his elegant prose, and his thoughtful analysis of the condition of Blacks, his essay reveals a writer of extraordinary skill and intellect. His rhetorical approach in detailing the disparity of the oppressed, courageous, non-violent people of his era proves that Letter from Birmingham Jail is without question, one of most important documents of the civil rights movement. Kings ability to communicate the plight of the disenfranchised of American society helped galvanize a generation and change the social fabric of an entire nation.
King Jr., Martin L. Letter From Birmingham Jail. A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus.
Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1998. 153-69
Zepp, Ira G., Jr. The Social Vision of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1989. 123-47
Walton, Hanes Jr. The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Greenwood Press, 1971