From Behind Bars.
On Good Friday in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led 53 blacks on a march in downtown Birmingham to protest the cities segregation laws. The Birmingham police arrested all of the demonstrators, including King. This caused the clergymen of Birmingham to compose a letter pleading with the black population to end their demonstrations. This letter appeared in The Birmingham Newspaper where the imprisoned Martin Luther King read it (Amistad Digital Resource). In response, King drafted a letter that would end up being essential to the Civil Rights movement and provide lasting inspiration to the struggle for racial equality. This letter, which became to be know as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” discuses the immorality of unjust laws as well as what a “just” law is. He warns of the increasing probability of the African American resorting to extreme disorder and bloodshed, in addition to his disappointment with the church who, in his opinion, had not lived up to their responsibilities as people of God. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” uses emotional and logical appeals in response to criticism from white clergymen of his actions, and though in jail King explains in an open, personal, diplomatic, heartfelt and completely inoffensive manner why he believes in the validity for civil disobedience and for nonviolent action. Kings letter, designed to refute the response of the clergymen, actually addresses a wider audience; the group of eight clergymen and the American population. White or black, educated or not, Americans can connect with King as he sits, writing his letter from jail, unfairly and unjustly imprisoned for a nonviolent demonstration. He does not write with hate in his words, nor with anger, but with well thought words weighted with a hint of frustration. He demonstrates this by describing his “disappointment” in the “hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause.” Martin Luther King not only addresses these clergymen, but does so on their terms. He speaks directly to these men, using statements such as “You deplore the demonstrations…” and “You speak of our activity…” to single them out. Kings use of questions allows for a more personal, thought provoking response to both the clergymen and the wider audience. Questions such as "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth?” implores the reader to think for him or herself. King is creating a discussion, a conversation, which makes the letter seem less derogatory well still making his views and justifications very clear. He uses rhetorical strategies of both logical and emotional language that invoke a sense of these men’s hypocrisy. He writes that he has “wept over the laxity of the church” and how he sees the “church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” (King) Though King is writing in response to the criticism of the clergymen, he still emphasizes his respect for them. He writes of how he seldom pauses to answer criticism of his work or ideas, but because he feels that they are “men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth” he wants to try and answer their concerns. King’s letter uses a voice of conversation, and calls others to join his voice. Margaret Wheatley describes how we have been conditioned to sit and listen to others talk; how we have been instructed to be quite allowing others to determine what we think (312). This mental and physical silence is exactly what King wants to fight. His conversational writing allows for his audience to think about what he has said and to, for themselves, decide it’s value. The application of “You may,” “We have,” and “We should,” further deepens the personal connection that he is attempting to establish with his readers. He is not just blandly reciting his ideas and...
Cited: “The Birmingham Desegregation Campaign.” Amistad Digital Resource. 2009. 28 Oct. 2009
Goshgarian, Gary., ed. Exploring Language 12th Ed. New York:, Longman 2010
Guinan, John. “Speaking Personally.” Goshgarian 316-318
Lunsford, Andrea. The St. Martin’s Handbook 6th Ed. 2010. 186
Wheatley, Margaret. “Some Friends and I Started Talking: Conversation and Social Change.” Goshgarian 311-315
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