Rhetorical Analysis of "Letter to Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Clergyman, activist, and influential leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., in his text now known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” passionately elaborates on why segregation protests are important, and why the cause of him being jailed is false. King’s purpose is to prove that segregation is wrong, and people must act in a nonviolent way against it to see its demise. He vividly recounts situations that he and other African Americans have encountered, along with multiple references to the Bible and American history to appeal to his audience, eight Alabama clergymen who wrote a published response condemning King’s actions against segregation, to make them sympathize and logically see why the Civil Rights Movement was so vital.

King begins his response by pointing out that he does not normally take the time to respond to criticisms of his work, but he is doing so because he feels like the men who wrote the article are good people who deserve a response. Using certain diction, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk... I would have no time for constructive work.” he conveys the message that criticism is not particularly important to him, getting his work done is. King also makes the point that the work he does while ignoring these critics is practical. This word choice shows the audience that King, responding from a jail cell, is focused on the work that he does, which is important.

Next, King addresses the argument proposed by the clergymen who were against “outsiders coming in”. He explains that he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headquartered in Alabama. This group has many affiliates, and when they ask for help, they get it. One organization centered in Birmingham called for their help, and they came. King states that he was “.. here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.”. This appeals to the audience’s morals and logic, because it is reasonable to go somewhere on invitation, and having a powerful Christian man in a society surely could not be a negative thing.

King then tells his audience that the real reason that he is in Birmingham, the reason he was invited, is because there is injustice in Birmingham. He alludes to the Bible, discussing stories of prophets carrying the word of Jesus Christ, in explaining that he is simply spreading freedom beyond his own home town. This reference to the Bible appeals to the emotions of the audience, especially because they are clergymen, and makes them feel understanding and connection towards King.

He goes into detail about the methods of deciding if injustice exists in a place and calls for nonviolent action. King states a fact that Birmingham’s “ugly record of brutality is widely known”, and explains specific instances of violence towards innocent Negro people. This connects with the audience's emotions and makes them feel sympathy.

King shifts to a counterargument that could easily be offered by his audience; isn’t negotiation a better means of change than nonviolent protests? He illustrates the point that nonviolent protests and demonstrations lead to negotiation by getting the attention of people who were otherwise ignoring the problem. King then compares this method to that of Socrates, who created tension to open the minds of people. The counterargument persuades the audience that, even though opposition may be presented, there is a just reason that overrides it. His comparison to Socrates appeals to the logic of the men, because the tension he caused resulted in a positive product, so who is to say that the same method would not have the same positive effect?

Next, King argues against the statement of the clergymen that the demonstrations were “untimely” by saying that they waited for a long time, and waiting for new administration to settle in would take too long. He references to a U.S. clergyman and Protestant theologian in...
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