Exploring Parallelism in Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

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Exploring Parallelism in Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is renowned for its use of parallelism, a rhetorical device that enhances the letter’s persuasive power. This essay will explore how King uses parallelism to draw comparisons between his experiences and broader historical and ethical contexts, thereby strengthening his arguments against racial injustice. The piece will analyze specific instances of parallelism in the text, demonstrating how this technique serves to underscore the moral urgency of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s call for nonviolent resistance. The overview will also reflect on how parallelism in King’s letter contributes to its enduring significance in the discourse on civil rights and social justice. Moreover, at PapersOwl, there are additional free essay samples connected to Martin Luther King.

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Historical Context and Primary Audience of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr during his time in prison after he portrayed a peaceful protest against segregation in Birmingham city. This letter was intended to respond to the eight white clergymen’s criticisms of his and his fellow activists’ actions as being “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, he addresses all of the clergy members’ concerns about his action with a very formal tone.

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The primary audiences he speaks to are the clergy members and the white people who do not support nor agree with the black community movement. Throughout the letter, MLK uses several rhetorical appeals such as logos, pathos, and ethos to support his arguments and persuade his audience to believe his word.

Ethos and Parallelism: King’s Connection to His Religious and Activist Roots

MLK first responds to the criticism with an effective use of ethos in his opening response. He introduces himself by stating, “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, GA. He tells the clergyman he is part of the city because one of his significant organizations is here. He is not an outsider from another city who has come in to make a stance or protest. Instead, he was invited here in the name of the president.

In addition to showing 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 then uses the comparison to show the similarity of his action and, like a goodwill mission of those prophets to bring peace and freedom to society. Although his non-violent campaign is criticized for being a threat or damaging to the city, he explains all his actions clearly and reassures his people not to portray violence.

MLK then states, “We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So, we decided to take a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on non-violence and constantly asked ourselves, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of Jail?”. Furthermore, he references his action and presents many historical examples, such as Socrates, who provokes societal tension to bring people out of their myths and false beliefs. As a result, it ends up enhancing MLK’s creditability that he is very well educated and a sincere man who only fights for freedom.

Logos and the Injustice in Birmingham

MLK’s use of logical argument is extreme and stands out in this letter. He continues explaining throughout his letter how the injustices happening to the African American Birmingham Community are drastically affecting them negatively. For example, police brutality, racial public outings, bombings, court mistreatment, racial signs hung everywhere, etc. In addition to the issue, the Ku Klux Klan would take white privilege to an absurd level which was not humane.

The injustice of all this madness in the streets is why MLK resolved the issue by taking peaceful actions, such as marching down the street in a crowd. MLK is aware of the potential danger he is putting the African American Community in during these protests since most white people are against them. In addition, MLK considers the point of view coming from both sides, the Black Community and White Community, to try and figure out how to execute his actions without bringing chaotic events.

King’s Respectful Tone and the Distinction Between Just and Unjust Laws

Throughout the letter, King has maintained a cordial and generous tone, careful to show respect for his critics even when they do not merit it. He now commends some of the white people who have supported the cause of racial equality in even the most minor ways, such as the Reverend Stallings.

Later on, 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 distinction between just and unjust laws, in which he suggested that when laws are unjust, it is not wrong to disobey them. Unfortunately, this general idea is insufficient or adequate to persuade the audience. Another example of logos usage is in his letter when he argues against the clergyman for labeling his activity as extreme. Here, he cleverly identifies his position to his audience as a neutral black community group.

However, comparing his actions to both sides of the black community gives a clear picture to his audiences that he and all his people are not extremists. Even though he is disappointed with the clergyman’s statement, he does not let his emotions get out of hand. He continues to send a peaceful message with a polite and calm tone and convinces his audience that his methods are the only effective way to solve the problem. Furthermore, 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.” MLK is very sophisticated in giving the audience a visual image to provoke his open thoughts and make them believe in his words. Signing off, King re-positions himself for his critics one final time: he is like them, a religious leader looking to spread the gospel of peace and community. However, unlike them, he has been jailed for his actions. He uses the fact that he is writing from a jail cell to remind his readers of the injustice and absurdity of the situation.


  1. King, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. In Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row.
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Exploring Parallelism in Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail". (2023, Aug 21). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/exploring-parallelism-in-dr-kings-letter-from-birmingham-jail/