Questions On Rhetoric And Style In Letter From Birmingham Jail

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Table of contents

  1. Analyzing King's Sarcastic yet Respectful Tone
  2. King's Strategic Paragraph Arrangement and Credibility
  3. Detailing the Nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement
  4. Juxtaposition and Periodic Sentences: King's Rhetorical Mastery
  5. Religious Allusions: Ethos and Pathos in King's Argument
  6. Concluding Thoughts: King's Patient and Reasonable Approach

Analyzing King's Sarcastic yet Respectful Tone

King’s tone in the opening paragraph can be described as sarcastic, yet respectful and understanding. He directly addresses the points made by the clergymen in a lighthearted way to express how he understands their urge to send such a letter. For example, by stating “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely srt forth,” King is being sarcastic because he knows that their letter was not meant to benefit the demonstrators, but rather ease the situation for themselves (1). But in doing this, King remains respectful because he does not directly nor bluntly criticize the clergymen in the way that they did to him by calling his activities “unwise and untimely.” Rather, he gives the clergymen the benefit of the doubt and makes an effort to see the goodness in them rather than focusing on their negative actions. He also clearly states that he intends to respond in a “patient and reasonable” manner, making his tone even clearer. Moreover, it can be argued that the tone is also ironic because King states “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time…” immediately after making it clear that he is in jail as he writes this letter (1). This is ironic because by being in jail, King does not have a desk full of papers nor does he have secretaries managing the letters he receives. In a way, he is showing the clergymen that he has nothing better to do but respond to their letter.

King's Strategic Paragraph Arrangement and Credibility

King arranges paragraphs two through four in the order that he does to make sure that his audience is first aware of the situation he is in, and second, aware of the type of person he is and his involvement in the civil rights movements. He begins paragraph two by discussing why he is in jail and directly addresses the point made by the clergymen that referred to him as an “outsider.” He reminds the clergymen that he is “president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” and references his heavy involvement in the Christian community in order to show the clergymen that they are speaking to someone who thoroughly understand what is occuring, proving that he is far from being an outsider (2). In paragraph three, King discusses the issues present in Birmingham and proceeds to further his credibility by including a Biblical allusion where he relates himself to the Apostle Paul in order to appeal to his audience of clergymen. Finally, in paragraph four, King emphasizes the need for unity ends by reiterating his argument of not being an outsider. This arrangement aids King in his argument because he first introduces his audience to his situation to gain their understanding then moves to establishing his credibility and rebutting their arguments. If King were to reverse the arrangement of these paragraphs, he would lose the emphasis placed on his credibility and lose the understanding of his audience because he would have begun with a statement that the clergymen would immediately disagree with, causing them to be unwilling to hear his argument.

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King’s religious allusions utilize both ethos and pathos because he is speaking to an audience of clergymen who have devoted their life to Christianity. By making several references to religious figures and situations, he proves to his audience that he understands Christianity and the Bible just as much as they do, if not more. These allusions remind them of his several educational degrees and the time he spent studying every aspect of the religion. The allusions also employ pathos because the references he makes to when Christians were hated reminds the audience of a time of “injustice” and makes it clear that the same injustice is now occurring. He is also targeting the emotions and morals of the clergymen because as religious leaders, they should understand the references he makes and how they prove to be appropriate to the situation.

Detailing the Nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement

King goes into detail to explain the nonviolence of his movement to prove the clergymen’s points wrong. They stated that the protests were violent and unnecessary, but King uses an abundance of details to show how much time and dedication goes into making sure these protests are not violent in any way. He also points out that if these demonstrations do become violent, it is not because of the organizers of the protests, but rather the people who refuse to listen and negotiate. He also provides a detailed explanation of the “four basic steps” were implemented into setting up these demonstrations and how there was never any violent intentions (6). King does all this to prove to the clergymen that it is not the fault of his organization that these demonstrations are viewed as violent because they put in much effort to make sure they are able to get their point across in a determined yet respectful and peaceful manner. He also emphasizes how the demonstrators have been mindful of the other situations occurring in the city, such as the elections, to further prove the respect African Americans have for their opposers despite being brutally ridiculed by them. By explaining the process in an orderly manner, King reflects the orderly and organized process of creating these demonstrations.

In sentence 2 of paragraph 14, King juxtaposes the rate of change in Asian and African culture with that of American culture to show how America is exemplified as the leading country, but in this situation it is far from earning that honor. He strives to show his audience how other countries have moved past the issue of racial inequality and racial injustice, yet America is falling behind because they have not yet reached this point. King does this to express how America is no longer the leading country of the world nor does it live up to its title of “the land of the free.” This juxtaposition also appeals to the patriotism of his audience and is intended to inflict a feeling of guilt in them for letting their country sink to such a low level.

Juxtaposition and Periodic Sentences: King's Rhetorical Mastery

The long sentence in paragraph 14 is a periodic sentence that is arranged the way it is to demonstrate to the clergymen the reasons that African American have for their protesting. The sentence is arranged so that it begins with more general situations that members of the community have faced, such as “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters,” then moves to more personal situations that King has faced, such as “ seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park…” (14). By repeating “when” and continuously piling examples, King emphasizes how these demonstrations are not “untimely,” but rather perfectly timed to face the urgency of the situation. This sentence is meant to expose the clergymen to the life that African Americans have become used to and illustrate to them the many reasons that King and his organization have for protesting. It also illustrates the situations that the clergymen do not see occurring, which can be interpreted as King telling them that they almost have no right to be against the movement when they do not even understand the details of it. When reversing the order of the sentence, the devestating impact it has is lost because rather than ending with the impactful statement of “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next…,” King would be starting with this statement and moving from personal statements to more generalized ones (14). The original sentence pulls the audience through a roller coaster of emotions that ends with a statement proving the fearful life of an African American while the reversed sentence begins more personal then builds suspense until ending on the climax of murder and harassment.

Religious Allusions: Ethos and Pathos in King's Argument

The first rhetorical strategy King uses in paragraph 25 is rhetorical questions. For example, after identifying one of the points made by the clergymen, he follows with “But is this a logical assertion?” The use of several rhetorical questions forces the clergymen to take a moment and rethink the situation from the new perspective King is now providing them with. The second rhetorical strategy King utilizes is several allusions, including ones to Socrates and Jesus. For example, in an effort to refute the point made by the clergymen that the demonstrators' protests “precipitate violence,” King states “Isn’t it like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifiction?” This Biblical allusion utilizes both ethos and pathos by reemphasizing King’s understanding of the Bible and questioning the morals of the clergymen. The third rhetorical strategy is an analogy where King compares the civil rights movement to a robbery. He does this by stating, “Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?” This analogy is meant to immediately cause the clergymen to realize the mistake in the point they made and reevaluate their perspective on the situation. The final rhetorical strategy is the repetition of the word “precipitate.” King repeats the word five times in the paragraph in order to emphasize his point, which is that his movement should not be condemned because it is viewed as a precipitator to violence.

The first chief rhetorical strategy used in paragraph 31 is a Biblical allusion to a verse that states “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to those that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” By quoting this verse, King reminds the clergymen of the Words of Christ that directly apply to the situation they are in. The second rhetorical strategy is anaphora, which King utilized by repeating the phrase “Was not” in the beginning of a series of subsequent sentences. This emphasizes the point that King is trying to make because he could have stopped after providing only a couple of examples, but he continues to pile on references in order to confirm that his point has been understood. The third rhetorical device is the repetition of the word “extremist,” which is stated twelve times in the paragraph to emphasize Martin Luther King Jr.’s point that being an extremist is not a term that he should be perceived as offensive. The fourth rhetorical strategy is the use of several rhetorical questions. For example, King asks “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” By including these questions right after eachother, King is testing the morals of not only the clergymen, but his secondary audience as well. The fifth rhetorical strategy is juxtaposition, which King utilizes by juxtaposing the negative connotation of an extremist with the positive one. FOr instance, when illustrating the scene of the Crucifixion, King states “Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.” By doing this, King shows that although the clergymen may have meant to offend him by referring to him as an extremist, he views the title as a positive label that he is proud of holding.

King waits until paragraph 45 to address the alleged commendable behavior of the Birmingham police in “preventing violence” because if he began by immediately disagreeing with the clergymen, they would not be willing to listen to his argument. When beginning the letter, King stated that he would be addressing the clergymen in “patient and reasonable terms.” If he had began with the argument against the Birmingham police, he would not be approaching the situation as he said he would. In addition, King has made it clear that all the previous points of the clergymen were simply misunderstandings and that he understood where they were coming from when making these points. But when it came to the involvement of the police, King wholey disagreed with the point made about the police’s behavior being commendable and was unable to understand how the clergymen could come to this conclusion. By waiting until the end of his letter to address this, King has already built a strong enough position where he can forcefully disagree with the clergymen rather than approaching each point with patience and understanding as he previously did. Addressing this situation near the end of the letter leaves his audience of clergymen with the impression that although King was kind and understanding through his letter, he is not afraid to advocate for what he believes is right. Leaving off on this point concludes the letter effectively and dramatically enough to make King’s letter strongly compelling.

One pattern of figurative language that Martin Luther King utilizes in his letter is the comparison between high and low. For example, in paragraph ten, King states, “...could ride from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal…,” where living in lies is considered to be the low and living in truth being the high. In the same sentence, King also states, “..rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood…,” where “prejudice and racism” are the low and “understanding and brotherhood” are the high. Furthermore, when comparing just and unjust laws, King asserts that “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (26). In this statement, unjust laws are the low and just laws are the high. In addition, in paragraph 22, the comparison of Adolf Hitler to the aiding and comforting of Jews can be interpreted as Hitler’s actions being a low and the actions of those who aided the Jews being a high. In paragraph 23, King states “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” where although it may not seem like it, “lukewarm acceptance” is the low “outright rejection” is the high. Another example of this form of figurative language is found in the statement, “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity,” where “racial injustice” is the low and “human dignity” is the high (26). A final example of this figurative language is in the concluding sentence of the letter where King states, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (50). In this statement, the current state of the country where “racial prejudice” reigns is considered to be the low and the desired state of the nation where “love and brotherhood will shine” is the high.

When focusing on the periodic sentence in paragraph fourteen, it can be found that the word “when” is repeated several times throughout the sentence. For example, the sentence begins with “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” (14). The sentence then continues with examples of violent situations African Americans face, each beginning with the word “when,” and ends with “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro…” (14). The repetition of the word “when” subsequently throughout the sentence overwhelms the readers because it accumulates many instances that bring about a dismal response. The audience is faced with example after example, overwhelming the reader with emotions and exposing them to situations they may not have been aware of, which will affect their view on the overall issue. The repetition of the word “when” is effective in this instant because it builds suspense as well as proves the urgency of the situation at hand and demonstrates why the civil rights movement is necessary.

Concluding Thoughts: King's Patient and Reasonable Approach

Martin Luther King Jr. Began his letter in a patient and reasonable tone where he showed understanding for the clergymen’s criticism. He then moves to directly addressing each point made by the clergymen utilizing complex syntax and intricately built arguments. When concluding with his final three paragraphs, King reverts from his forcible arguing and exemplifying to his initial patient and considerate tone in order to convey to his audience that he is not trying to come off as violent or defensive, but rather someone who is willing to resolve any misunderstandings. In addition, the three paragraphs are rhetorically effective because it inflicts feelings of guilt upon the audience by reminding them of how King is writing this letter from a jail cell that he does not belong in. By stating “ would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell…,” King concludes by connecting back to how he opened, which was by reminding his audience where he is writing this letter from. There is also an implied mockery in the way King concludes because by reminding them that he is in jail and they are not, he emphasizes how he has put in the effort to make a change and has fought for justice while they have lived cowardly and hid behind their erroneous beliefs. In the penultimate paragraph, King asks his audience of clergymen and God for forgiveness if he has stated anything incorrect, which establishes his credibility as someone who has the ability to own up to his mistakes, even if his mistakes come with good intentions. Finally, King concludes with a form of figurative language which is rhetorically effective because he unites himself with his audience in the shared desire of having a peaceful and progressive future for their nation.

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