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Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail: Critical Analysis

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Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to eight skeptical clergymen addressed their criticism directed towards his actions to combat racism. After hearing and analyzing the clergymen’s bigoted proposition that King’s actions were both “unwise and untimely,” he created his counterargument to disprove their claim. Writing from Birmingham Jail in Alabama in August 1963, King showed that his efforts were not misguided but were essential in his movement to thwart racism growing in America. Although all men were free during King’s time, blacks were still treated as second-class citizens which King recognized. In saying “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wanted his audience to recognize the discrimination blacks faced daily and the urgent need for reform. King uses rhetorical devices such as metaphors, the rhetorical triangle, and symbols to support his claim throughout his letter effectively showing the clergymen his efforts were just.

King uses metaphors to accurately relate and portray how threatening racism had become. First, he showed the condition racism had left many blacks in by saying they “live in an airtight cage of poverty.” Similarly, these conditions left them “bound” no better off as if they were in prison. King continues this metaphor showing how blacks have been bound by chains for centuries. I am thankful I have “broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity.” To justify his actions to the clergymen, King showed how his action of protesting in the streets instead of simply fighting in court was in fact needed. Second, King related the Civil Rights Movement to a long journey. He showed how fighting could “open the doors to negotiation.” In other words, the journey to win freedom could finally begin! He further shows how the journey would contain “stumbling blocks,” but they must keep persisting. Lastly, King relates the metaphors of antithesis. He compares racism and prejudice to “dark and low” while comradeship and brotherhood to “high and light.” By comparing the injustice of racism to quicksand and human dignity to a solid rock, King showed how destructive not joining forces truly was in unifying the country.

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King also addresses each part of the rhetorical triangle to connect with his audience. First, King effectively utilized ethos. At the beginning of his letter, King absolves the movement’s actions by showing its nonviolent forms of protest. However, King already has some trust and credibility because of his position as a leading African-American figurehead and a reputable pastor. Although King had previously gained some credibility, he still had to earn the trust from his hostile audience– the clergymen. He builds ethos by finding common ground; a protest was scheduled on the day of the Birmingham mayoral election, and they respectfully postponed the protest until the next day out of respect. Furthermore, King alludes that he is not the only one who sees the need for nonviolent protests in saying “Just as Socrates felt.” Second, King uses logos to further justify the movement’s actions. Logos does not appear as much in his letter as King does not need to convince anyone that violence is wrong; however, he needed to prove even his nonviolent ways were right. He explains that nonviolent protests “seek so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Protesting peacefully brought attention to the issue while doing it in the right way. Lastly, King uses pathos to draw emotion and succor his pacifist approach. By referring back to the Civil War in the times of slavery, King showed how much damage could be caused if he resorted to violence instead. King explains how blacks have “adjusted to segregation” further bringing out the emotions of the reader. This showed the hardships blacks were facing while the critics stood idly by.

Lastly, King alludes to famous people from history to combat the idea that he is an extremist. In the Bible, Paul suffered for Christ by being beaten, mocked, jailed, and eventually killed. King refers to Galatians 6:17 which says “I bear on my body the marks for the Lord Jesus.” Paul was not ashamed to stand for Christ even though he was denounced. Next, King alludes to John Bunyan’s action to stand up for what he believed in the face of persecution. Bunyan was thrown in jail for repeatedly preaching God’s Word. Upon his time to be released, English authorities forbade him to preach the Gospel. Knowing he could not forsake his God, Bunyan decided to stay in jail and minister there rather than being free. King referred to Bunyan saying “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Lastly, Bunyan alludes to Abraham Lincoln and his position on slavery. This allusion proves to be the strongest as it directly relates to King’s situation. Lincoln, thought to be an extremist, said: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” While Lincoln’s ideas were thought to be radical in his day, he is now regarded as a hero. King alludes to these men to show his reformist actions were in fact justified even though he was viewed as crazy.

King effectively supported his claim throughout his paper becoming a major figurehead in the movement to combat racism. By using metaphors and addressing all parts of the rhetorical triangle throughout the entire letter, King established himself and his message as legitimate; furthermore, he was able to connect with his audience. His urgency and immediate call for action showed the drastic need for reform. King used a well-rounded argument through his logic by vividly divulging the conditions blacks in the US faced. By promoting peaceful protest and inspiring change, King presented an argument the clergymen could connect with. King’s work helped accomplish his goal‒to provide a better future for America by bringing everyone together.

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