Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

The intention of King’s piece is to justify his use of nonviolent protest to try and end the discrimination that was happening in Birmingham, Alabama. He is explaining to his audience why the protesting is necessary and how there are deep rooted problems not only in Birmingham but all throughout the South. He is trying to rally people together to see all the injustices and take a stand to combat racism.

King had biblical references throughout his entire piece. He did this because his audience were clergymen and he was also a minister. He used the Bible because it connects the two groups together. King says in his piece, “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.” (King 430). He uses the Bible to justify his point that racism is wrong and that civil disobedience is necessary when there is outright oppression of a group of people. King knows that all the clergymen he is addressing are more than familiar with the Bible; he uses this as a tool to show them that the marches in Birmingham are not radical and even strong biblical figures participated in action against those in power.

King has an exceptionally powerful paragraph in this piece that talks about extremist. He names notorious public figures that society adores that were, at the time, considered extremist. King starts off the paragraph by saying he takes pride in the fact that he has been labeled an extremist because there are so many popular extremist who have brought about positive change. King says, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love… was not Amos an extremist for justice… was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel… was not Martin Luther an extremist.”(King 433). His use of repetition is so effective because it forces the reader to see that change can lead to great things and that opposition should not get in the way. He even poses a rhetorical question and says, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” (King 433). I found this paragraph to be so powerful because it is overflowing with effective rhetorical figures that forces the reader to reflect on all the powerful extremist throughout history that we now see as heroes.

King uses pathos in this piece by constantly pointing out how disappointed he is with groups of people. Specifically, the white church leaders and the white moderate. He pretty much blames these two groups for all the hurtles the African American community has had to jump because they have idly sat by and done nothing. King expresses this disappointment when he says, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (King 430). He says how upsetting it is for him to see brother ministers outright oppose this movement. King had believed that the white religious leaders would see the injustice going on and show their support. This however did not happen and King repeatedly says how disappointed he is. By pointing out his frustrations with these two groups of people, King is evoking a lot of pathos with hopes that they would see how unhelpful they have truly been.

– -Megan Ross

What makes this piece so powerful is that King defends each of his points with examples.  When talking about injustice King states, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…But 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…”  These examples give the pieces it’s power.  Although there was a tremendous amount of injustice, without the examples the letter could seem like a long complaint instead of something that actually needed change.

When talking about why nonviolent protests are the correct way to bring about change King appeals to ethos.  King states the purpose of nonviolent action saying, “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”  The purpose of nonviolent action is to create so much tension and uncomfortableness that those around must negotiate and acknowledge the issue.  To appeal to ethos, King cites Socrates.  King states that in order to bring about change in his time, Socrates also felt that it was necessary to create tension.  By citing Socrates, King increases his credibility.

Quote: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”  This quote is so moving because even though African Americans live in the United States, they still feel like outsiders.  The message of the entire piece is to fight for the right to feel a sense of belonging and for basic rights.  The quote is also moving because King wrote it in a jail cell.   it is impossible to tell how can King feel like a citizen of the United States when he was placed in jail for fighting for his basic rights. Even under the most serious forms of racial injustice, King managed to stay hopeful and wrote inspiring words like those.

–Samantha Smith

King wrote this letter to church leaders from a jail cell after participating in anti-segregation movements in Birmingham. He was responding to a pro-segregation/ anti-protest letter published by these leaders. In this situation, most people would respond with angry and accusatory words, however King is very calm and polite with his choice of words. The fact that he remains reserved throughout the letter makes his arguments seem more valid and have more substance. This gives him ethos, as angered words would make his arguments seem immature, but his calm, collected tone makes gives his arguments weight and credibility.

King creates logos by outlining the four steps for a nonviolent protest: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He then describes in detail how his group performed each of these steps. They found evidence that Birmingham had an extreme amount of segregation and then tried to negotiate better integration agreements in the city to no avail. Then, they asked themselves if they could bear the hatred without being violent, and finally decided to act with a nonviolent protest. His explanation showed that this protest did not come out of nowhere, and that the group had tried various other tactics to achieve their goal of integration. Many people of this time, including the religious leaders to whom he writes, would have said the protests were uncalled for, but by laying out each step they took and that the direct action was a final resort, he shows that this was a logical progression.

King uses striking examples to make readers commit his points to memory and think about them for a long time. When talking about the difference between just and unjust laws, he points out that “everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.” This would cause many readers to pause and truly think about the current situation in the United States. Perhaps they weren’t oppressing the African Americans quite as much as Hitler did with the Jews, but the fact that these two events could even be compared would cause many Americans a great deal of distress. Many people reading this letter would have lived through WWII, so by using this example that is close to them, it creates a very powerful link in their minds and commits the points to memory.

–Alyssa Cassidy

In order for this piece to be as influential as it was, King had to write so people would take him seriously. He uses historical references, biblical references, educated thoughts. and thesaurus-worthy words; his tone truly speaks as an author, not a radical man locked in prison for disrupting peace. King quotes philosophers Socrates and Aristotle, two very educated and well-known men. The tone of the letter is so precise in using the direct quotes that it gives the reader a sense it was a research paper written using sources and books and weeks of studying- yet it was written in a jail cell with no way to get any outside knowledge. King is so eloquently informed that he is trusted by all readers. By using the church, ancient philosophers, and historical reference, King created a tone which demanded respect: a tone he needed to reach his stubborn and biased audience.

The fact that this essay was written as a letter from a jail cell is often underestimated. These words would have a different reaction if they were delivered as a speech or a chapter of a book. The fact it is written as a letter gives it a much more personal aspect. It is as if one is reading leisurely from a close friend in the safety of one’s own home. Private matters are written in a similar context. The readers of this letter have a more personal connection with the speaker when it is written in this way. The delivery of epistolary literature is so important because it gives the reader a different mindset going into it. They see the problems as closer to home, closer to them, the ones they love. It is no longer a public rally with people screaming and chanting and throwing things, it is a tired man who is afraid for the future of the world, his world.

In order for this piece to come across as something the average person would read, it had to appeal to their beliefs and values. This is why King uses so many mainstream religious ideals and terminologies. By using this common ground between the different races, he establishes an alibi for both. They both use the same bible to practice the same faith. King uses this style to help get his point across by comparing the criticisms claiming that he is doing this at the wrong time as the same criticisms Jesus received. This is the most obvious comparison, but one of the more subtle one was “I am too compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown”. Even these similarities pushed for the relevance between the two race for an opportunity of understanding.

–Mary Beiter



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