Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail
The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written by Martin Luther King, Jr during the time he was imprisoned in jail, after the demonstration of a peaceful protest against segregation in Birmingham city. In his letter, it was intentionally written to respond to criticisms of the eight white clergymen on him and his fellow activists’ action, as being “unwise and untimely”. He addresses every clergymen’s concerns about his action with a formal tone. His main audiences are the clergymen and white moderates who do not agree with the black community movement. Throughout the letter, King uses a combination of rhetorical appeals such as, logos, ethos and pathos to support his arguments and persuade his audiences to believe in what he says.
Dr. King initially responds to the criticism with an effectively use of ethos in his opening letter. Clarifying his present in the city, oppose to the clergymen’s claim for being “outsiders coming in”, he introduces himself by stating that “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern State, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organization all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.” He clearly shows the clergymen that he is part of the city because one of his organization is located here. He is not an outsider who come in the city to do a protest, instead being invited here in the name of president. Alongside of presenting himself as the president of SCLC, he adds more ethos appeal in his letter, comparing his action to a religious movement such as, the Apostle Paul and other prophets who left their cities to spread the message of Jesus Christ to other cities. He uses this comparison to show the similarity of his action like a good will mission of those prophets who bring peace, and freedom to the society. Even though his nonviolent campaign is criticized to be a potential harm to the city, he explains all of his action with clarity that he and his people didn’t try to create violence. He then says that “We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the question, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’”. This statement helps to uplift his action that it is well thought and planned based on the truth. Furthermore, he does reference his action and label himself to many of the historical examples such as Socrates who provokes a tension in the society to bring people out of the myths and false belief, or even Amos who is an extremist for justice, convincing his audiences that he and his people are fighting for the righteousness in the society. As a result, it enhances his credibility that he is a well-educated and sincerely man who has a strong passion to fight for freedom.
King’s usage of logical argument is very strong in the letter. As he moved his argument over the anxiety of clergymen on black men’s willingness to break the law. He agreed that it was strange for him to break the law while urging people to respect the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation. He then made a very logical set of distinctions between just and unjust laws, in which he suggests that when laws are unjust; it is not wrong to disobey them. Still, providing just a general idea would not be adequate to persuade the audiences so he needs to expand his idea deeper, for example:
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a minority inflicts on a minority that is not binding in itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered.
This is a precise definition based on fact that is hard to refute. He uses a situation of black people in Alabama to support his idea about the unjust laws that helps his audience understand about the absence of equality in laws. Moreover, he does use his own experience when he was arrested for protesting without permit, in which he describes as “it is not wrong for the law to require permit to protest but it becomes an unjust law when it works against the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.” Surely, his examples support his action rigidly.
Another example of logos usage in his letter is by the time he argues the clergymen for labeling his activity as extreme. Here, he cleverly identifies his position to his audience as being a neutral group in black community.
I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodyness” that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable devil. I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.
Yet, providing a comparison of his action to the two sides of black community, it gives a picture to his audiences that he and his people are not an extremist. Even though he is disappointed with the clergymen’s statement, he doesn’t let his emotion get over a reason. He continues sending a message with a polite tone and implicitly convinced his audience that his method is now the only effective way to solve the problem. He mentions “if this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.” King is pretty sophisticated on giving a visual imagery to provoke his opponents’ thought and make them believe in his words.
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Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/analysis-of-letter-from-birmingham-jail/
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