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“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Sample

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“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Sample

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used a wide range of his rhetoric to appeal to America for support for civil rights.  This letter begins with a friendly, open tone.  King wishes to reason, in a courteous response, with the seven clergymen who have criticized his refusal to call off marches in Birmingham, Alabama, in defiance of the court injunction ordering him to do so.  With the force of a sermon, it builds to a challenge to clergy and to the nation to support his cause.  In this letter, King use a range of rhetorical devices and methods to call not merely reluctant clergy but a nation to this support him in this struggle

            Dr. King uses definition:  he is not an “outside agitator.” He uses narrative, telling of the patience with which Blacks asked for modest changes to racism in Birmingham, and the refusal of the white community to give ground.  He uses cause and effect: his demonstrations cause tension; that tension brings the civil rights issue into American consciousness.

He compares and contrasts:  he is like a prophet or like Paul the Apostle.  He contrasts the struggles of Blacks in Alabama with the evasion and complacence of the white moderates, forever delaying justice and evade their responsibility.  He contrasts the “jetlike speed” with which emergent nations in Africa and Asia are winning freedom with the “horse and buggy pace” Blacks in America endure.       The opening paragraph begins with contrast.  He seldom responds to criticism.  “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth,” he makes an exception.  This uses pathos and ethos, nudging the clergy’s pride even in his self-effacement:

“I want to try to answer [you] in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

            The height of his power comes in the cadenced litany telling why patience has failed:

when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; . . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t 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, .

. . when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; . . . when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last

            name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”

            In this letter, King uses logos.  He cites literal and historical analogies, definitions, facts, and biblical references to evoke thoughtful agreement.  He uses ethos, giving a restrained, fair-minded presentation to show both his own authority and competence, and to win the respect of those readers who were unsure of their stance on the civil rights issue.  He uses pathos.  Drawing in vivid, concrete language, stark with emotion and frightening connotations, Dr, King musters emotional examples, vivid descriptions and figurative language of events that millions understood and could relate to in order to bind his readers to him emotionally.

            As a rhetorical piece, this letter was immediately successful.  Released, it soon became one of the best known of King’s works.  It galvanized support for the struggle in Birmingham and solidified Dr. King’s standing as the foremost spokesperson of the civil rights movement.  It remains a profound and moving monument to this man’s ability to draw a nation to accept the civil rights challenge and to move forward.

AUTHORITY:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  April 16, 1963; accessed: February 12, 2007.  Available at <http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/liberation_curriculum/pdfs/ letterfrombirmingham_wwcw.pdf>.  Internet.  ,

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