Birmingham Letters - Rhetorical Analysis Essay Sample

Published: 2022-04-28
Birmingham Letters - Rhetorical Analysis Essay Sample
Essay type:  Rhetorical analysis essays
Categories:  Martin Luther King
Pages: 8
Wordcount: 1949 words
17 min read

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" is Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr's long response to another written to him by some white Alabama clergymen to dissuade him against activism since according to them it was not good. Before delving into the rhetorical aspects of the letter, it befits to trace the events that culminated into its writing as a basis of exploring why King used different rhetoric. During the 1960s, racial discrimination had reached a fever pitch, and people of color were suppressed, discriminated against and even excluded from mainstream activities. In response to this harsh and racially instigated violence, Martin Luther King Jnr through his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a series of non-violent direct action including sit-ins, boycotts, picketing and demonstrations as an approach towards attaining racial justice (Watson 19). Nonetheless, he was arrested and incarcerated after a court banned such actions. It is while in the prison that the white Alabama clergymen wrote a letter to him to castigate his activism. This letter provoked King who replied to them through the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In the letter, Dr. King systematically, logically and unreservedly explained to the clergymen, the church and the wider following the course of his action. In attempting to convince the audience including the church and clergymen that he led the people in demonstrating against injustices since it was necessary at the time, King uses various approaches including rhetorical devices and sympathetic tone. He uses both condemnatory and persuasive tones where the need is to influence his audience to agree with him inadvertently. Through the use of logos, pathos, allusion, imagery, syllogism, ethos and various other devices, King succeeds in not only asserting his stance but also gaining the support of the liberal whites.

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In the letter, Dr. King uses various rhetorical approaches to debunk the simplistic perceptions about his nonviolent action as well as convince more people of goodwill to join him in the struggle. At best, King uses logic to defend himself against the assertions of the clergymen. He clearly and logically explains to the audience, white moderates, and religious population the motives of his civil rights movements (Mott 417). In fact, King uses pathos to express the desperate need for nonviolent action as a way of liberating the suppressed, repressed and discriminated races in the United States. In essence, Dr. King in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" uses different rhetoric to explain his conviction, convince the populace to support the course and agitate for a great awakening in the American social order.

Dr. King plainly appeals to logos repeatedly in the letter primarily when he expresses his disappointment at being considered an extremist from which he then gained satisfaction and remained steadfast in the struggle. He is not only impassioned in his language but also uses a tone which supports a strong argument for logic. Despite the harsh treatment of the prison, King still gives logic a chance to prevail in the letter thus earning himself not only credibility but also relevance among his audience (Leff and Ebony 44). He presents his facts and logic in different ways including asking rhetorical questions and using figurative language. In using this approach, he appeals to the audience that his nonviolent action is not illegal or radical but just a peaceful way of agitating for equality. In paragraph 15 of the letter, for example, King asks the question, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" In paragraph 16 of the letter, he further asks, "Now what is...when a law is unjust?", "Isn't it segregation...terrible sinfulness?" These two questions King asserts the stance that it is justifiable to disobey segregation laws.

The rhetorical questions help King in making express logical assertion through which he achieves his purpose of communicating the injustices of the segregation codes to the clergymen who otherwise thought that he was mistaken in fighting for racial prejudice. He uses similar rhetorical the questions that appeal to logos and pathos in paragraph twenty-five of his long letter (Mott 420). The questions he poses confronts the lack of logic around the arrest of African Americans who were merely protesting against the gross violations of their rights not only as Americans but as part of the realm of humanity. King argues that arresting the African Americans for protesting injustices is akin to blaming them for an "evil act" while in a real sense they are the victims (Leff and Ebony 47). Overall, the use of rhetorical questions not only helps King in illustrating his points but also triggers the audience to be more rational in understanding the course for which he believes and is ready to pay the ultimate cost for its realization.

King in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" also uses antithesis to appeal to logos, ethos, and pathos. Antithesis plays a significant role in the letter by juxtaposing two contrasting effects from two opposites. For instance, in paragraph twenty-two of the letter, king poses "who prefers a negative peace ...presence of justice" This statement creates the contrast of negative and positive peace. According to this contrast, King underscores that positive peace is a composite of the absence of tension and prevalence of justice (Mott 416). The net effect of antithesis is that it helps king achieve logic by presenting two sets of facts to the audience upon which they are to choose the obvious-the better one.

King also exemplifies logos by demonstrating how segregation laws are unjust. For instance, in the eighteenth paragraph of his letter, he gives shows the devious methods in Alabama in which laws were made by the conservative whites with authority ostensibly for their benefit at the expense of other racial groups (Klein 26). Luther logically argues that the laws would not have been made to confer any good for the African Americans since the white perceived that granting such liberties would deprive them of their power and render them racially equal. He gives the Alabama literacy test as an example of the laws that denied the blacks the right of universal suffrage (Johansen 16).

King also uses allusion to further assert his appeal to pathos and demonstrate that he is not only educated but also knowledgeable about the subject matter which he was pursuing in his infamous civil rights movement. He also refers that appeal to mass audiences including various religious groups of Islam, Christianity, and Jewish. In essence, King uses both allusion and pathos to arouse emotional appeal among his target audience in two significant ways (Klein 30). First, he creates a stronger relationship with his vast base of audience and secondly establishing a tone of guilt as evident in paragraph twenty-one of the letter. In paragraph twenty-two where King makes references to Hitler which is an allusion to remind the clergymen of their spiritual bond while at the same time creates a new strong relationship with his Jewish audience. Furthermore, he refers to the Third Reich and the Holocaust to gain an emotional connection with his audience (Leff and Ebony 41). By relating the case of the Negro in the US to the Third Reich and the Holocaust, he attains pathos since the two historical comparisons put the oppression of the Negro in the same level of tyranny that some other populations in the world had experienced, and the net effect was a mass loss of human lives. He creates an urgency, evokes pity and sympathy for the need of an urgent intervention in the issue of the blacks since without it they risk extermination as had happened during the Holocaust. Through allusion and pathos, King laid bare to the audience the reasons for his fight, the need for their involvement and a call for the clergymen to reevaluate their stands if they were to live by the dictates of the Bible that calls them to defend the suffering and oppressed.

In the letter from Birmingham, King also uses a syllogism to give significance to his civil rights movement. Syllogism is a literary device in which one draws a conclusion based on two given or presumptuous propositions. It presents a common understanding between the two claims which may not necessarily be correct or valid. For instance, he makes references to the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus was accused of being an extremist, Abraham Lincoln's speech on "a house divided" and Thomas Jefferson who were also considered extremists yet they were respected. Therefore, he argues that despite the fact that he is viewed as an extremist, should be recognized and given the support to advance his course. In invoking these historical episodes and names of personalities, King flips the idea of extremism from being something negative to a very positive connotation. In fact, he argues that he holds the same beliefs as the great historical leaders who were extremist, therefore, he also considers and asks people to find him an extremist in advocating for justice and equality for all (Watson 11).

Martin Luther King Jnr in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" also uses imagery to underscore the need for popular support for his civil rights activism and portray the clergymen who were opposed to his stance as contemptuous. Imagery is the use of words that are not only visually descriptive but also figurative in the sense that they create a vivid impression of what an individual implies. For instance, in paragraph twenty-nine of the letter, King writes "many streets of the South would, I am convinced by flowing with blood." This statement gives the visual image of what the streets of the United States of America would look like if he were to embrace violent protests as a way of agitating for the rights of the Negro. It also shows how the streets would be if there were no action (Leff and Ebony 41). Collectively, these two undertones help King to endear his movement in the heart and minds of the people as well as create a vivid impression of how errant the clergymen were for portraying him as being violent. Therefore, the imagery also creates some fear in the populace and cause them to want to act against the perceived violence actively. When King writes that "Now is the time....solid rock of human dignity in paragraph twenty-six of his letter, he creates imagery as well as pathos. The statement has the effect of giving the blacks some hope that out of his struggles and that of the many who were willing to pursue that path with him, the Negro would eventually rise from the dungeons of prejudice and discrimination to the glory of freedom and equality.

By using logic, King benefited from the fact that presenting facts clearly and precisely when confronted with fallacies is undeniably effective in winning the audience. By laying the points in a logical sequence of argument, Dr. King proves that no matter the subject, reason supersedes emotion. Through logic and pathos, King manages to overturn whatever negative beliefs that people in Alabama could have held against him. In actual sense, it is difficult for anyone including the moderate whites and critical clergymen to challenge points that are made so apparent through common sense. In conjunction with logos, king uses pathos to support his ideas. For instance, in the letter, King asks, "Will we be extremists for hate or love?"

Along with pathos, and logos, King uses ethos which is a set of best practices that guide how a society should live and interact. In essence, he invokes the precepts of morals which is essential in any well-ordered community (Klein 24). He attributes the rights of the blacks to be God-given, and therefore no one, however powerful should claim to limit them whatsoever. In the letter, he dissociates himself from being the architect of the rights but instead gives...

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