A Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr., a social activist and member of the American civil rights movement against racial discrimination, is an example of well-structured, convincing, and persuasive literary creation. Although King was mostly known as a magnificent speaker, this document demonstrates his outstanding writing skill and perfect memory, proven by familiarity with a wide range of literature, from the sources of Ancient Greek to modern German philosophy. He embedded the references to various authors without having the possibility to explore the books, being locked in jail, and, thus, relying exclusively on his memory.
The paper was composed as an answer to the open letter from eight white clergymen of Alabama, published on the day of his imprisonment in the Birmingham News. King, a leader of SCLC(Southern Christian Leadership Conference), was invited to Alabama to help in organizing nonviolent social actions of protest against segregation. However, as a peaceful way of claiming the rights had no impact on the public authorities and no change appeared in the position of the black citizens, the demonstrations and picketing transformed into active protest; as a result, King was arrested and imprisoned. The Letter, thus, appeared not only as an answer to the clergymen, but was aimed to affect the wide audience, demonstrating the urge for reconsideration of the social rules and necessary actions for their change. Such a purpose required persuasive, proving, and inspiring writing, in which the author succeeded in his Letter. In this essay, King’s persuasive strategies and elements of argument will be analyzed, with the aim to understand the reasons for the relevance of his rhetorical methods as well as arguments till present.
A Letter from Birmingham Jail is a well-structured paper that makes it easy to follow for the readers and ensures the clear appearance of the arguments. In paragraphs 1-5, King introduces the issue and the reason why he answers the criticism of his work and ideas that otherwise rarely happens (par. 1). He also explains the legitimacy of his actions in Birmingham on behalf of SCLS, despite opponents’ treatment of him as an “outsider coming in” (par. 2). Further, he explains the reason for his actions that lie in the presence of “injustice taking place in Birmingham,” and an absence of an alternative to combat it, other than the way he did (pars. 3-5).
After that, in the first section of the body of the Letter (pars. 6-18), he consequently replies to the three claims against him expressed in A Letter from Eight White Clergymen. These claims refer to “violence,” “untimeliness,” and “willingness to break laws” of his actions. He provides counter-arguments to it (pars. 6-8, 9-11, and 12-18, respectively), explaining the motives of his decisions. In the paragraphs 19-21, he contemplates on them, providing in-depth insight into philosophical concerns. Further, in the second section of the body, he speculates about alternative ways of dealing with a current social situation. Those variants of dealing with discrimination and injustice, as he hoped initially, would appear possible; however, they did not do so. In the end, he concludes the Letter (pars. 35-39), summarizing all his points about the inevitability and necessity of his actions. Thus, the Letter’s structure is clear, and it may be considered as one of the reasons for the effectiveness of King’s paper.
From the beginning, King establishes a friendly tone in addressing his opponents. He constantly refers to them, including in the text phrases such as “my friends,” “my Christian and Jewish brothers.” In the first paragraph, he calls them “men of genuine good will,” and defines their criticism as “sincerely set forth,” building ethos, which he later maintains throughout the Letter. In paragraph 8, he proceeds: “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation,” thus, using the commonly agreed issue as the initial point for explaining where his opponents turn in the wrong direction.
Also, King establishes such an initial, mutually accepted, point through appealing to moral as the highest instance for recognizing “legal” and “illegal” (par. 18). Besides, in the second part of the Letter’s body, he goes into details of the matter and expresses his “disappointment” about the “opposing forces in the Negro community” itself. Thus, on the one hand, he states the diversity and disagreement within “his party” as well (par. 22). On the other hand, he indicates the presence of compassion and understanding among white people, who “grasped the meaning of this social revolution” (par. 25). In this way, he maintains his friendly position throughout the paper.
Appeal to Logic
King widely uses Logos as a way of persuading his audience, using different methods of it. First, he provides necessary evidence of the legibility and right choice of his position. King mentions “hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts” about the treatment of Negroes, such as presence “racial signs in the stores,” the absence of the registration to vote (pars. 6-7, 13). Second, he uses deductive reasoning, with generally true statements and correlation of the current situation with them. For example, he refers to Thomas Aquinas’s words that “any law that degrades personality is unjust,” further arguing that “any type of segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality,” concluding that segregation is unjust (pars. 13). Third, King widely uses analogies with other historical situations, bringing parallels to Socrates’ s and Jesus Christ’s circumstances, among others.
Appeal to Emotions
In the Letter, King also uses Pathos as an effective persuasive method. By his rich and colorful language, he draws the pictures that can touch the souls of the readers, not only their brains. It appears with particular strength in paragraph 11, where King embeds in the text purposely long sequence of the examples of injustice, divided by semicolon in a single sentence that lasts 16 lines. It the end, he concludes his paper with the picture of police’s “hungry violent dogs literary biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes,” by this leaving the reader on the peak of compassion and ensuring agreement with his position.
In summary, A Letter from Birmingham Jail is an effective, persuasive, and proving paper, written in a brilliant language and with deep thought. In my opinion, it can not only serve as a document that provides historical and sociological knowledge about its time but go beyond a particular period, being the manifestation of the universal truth. Besides, it can be studied as an excellent example of a literary piece, an analysis of which can help to discover effective techniques of persuasiveness and argumentation. Therefore, A Letter has all the rights to remain relevant now, as it was half of the century ago, and maintain so in the future.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 212, no. 2, 1863, pp. 78-88.