Martin Luther Kings Letter From Birmingham

Jail Essay, Research Paper

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a pleasure to read, and the tension of the civil rights movement during that time built quickly. On rereading, I had time to admire King’s strategies through the use of ethos, logos, and pathos. On reflection, I was able to understand and appreciate the way King expressed significance of the civil rights movement.

This letter is unquestionable a work of art. It is not a simple letter, because it reveals a lot and shows a range of emotions, but is very easy to read. In the opening paragraph King explains how he came across a letter that eight clergy members published in a local newspaper and proceeds to respond to their comments. King moves on in paragraphs 2 and 3 were he sets up his credibility and explains his reasons for being in Birmingham. The letter changes in paragraph four where we begin to see King’s use of metaphors: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny.” King continues to explain his presence in Birmingham and begins to change the tone from introductory to confrontational. In paragraph 10 he raises questions that were not directly asked and proceeds to explain his actions. It is here King presents his argument in a definable logic. It is his purpose is to inform the clergy of a new body of knowledge. He includes the completeness and clarity of the knowledge presented by answering questions that had not been raised. The purpose is to persuade the clergy to accept a new opinion on a matter of significance: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

While the tension contributes powerfully to my engagement with the letter, the careful focus of the scene and action also contributes. The scene is paragraph 14 and specifically King’s use of pathos, including his use of metaphors: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” He does this in a way that refers to the logical order of the reasons he marshals to support the appeal for social change. King keeps the focus on his actions and appeals to emotion. It is here that he writes the longest sentence found in the letter. He uses a dialog that reaches into the pit of your soul and places you on an emotional rollercoaster: ” when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammered as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky ”

Still another thing that adds to my interest in this letter and increases the tension for me as a reader is the ability King has on word play. King’s specific gestures and those of other actions in the letter help imagine what is going on. As I’ve said, some of the emotional appeals rip at your very soul. For example, he continues to explain the cruel punishment blacks receive and their reasons to demand change now. This specific paragraph appeals to me because it gave me a strong visual image, almost as real to me as the memory of observing actions like these or seeing a film of them.

In paragraph 16 we see him differentiate between just and unjust laws. In the closing the issue of just and unjust laws, paragraph 22, we learn that, “We should never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” ” King then expresses his disappointment with white moderates in paragraph 23 who, by opposing his program of nonviolent direct action, have become a barrier to progress toward racial justice. He acknowledges that his program has raised tension in the South, but he explains that tension is necessary to bring about change. Furthermore, he argues that tension already exists. But because it has been unexpressed, it is unhealthy and potentially dangerous.

He defends his actions against the clergymen’s criticisms, particularly their argument that he is in too much of a hurry. Responding to charges of extremism, King claims that he has actually prevented racial violence by channeling the natural frustrations of oppressed African Americans into nonviolent protest. He asserts that extremism is precisely what is needed now; but it must be creative, rather than destructive, extremism. He concludes by again expressing disappointment with white moderates for not joining his efforts as many other whites have.

In assessing King’s appropriateness I refer to paragraph 24 where King argues that if law and order fail to establish justice, “they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” The analogy asserts the following logical relationship: law and order are to progress toward justice what a dam is to water. King uses both analogy and authority in the following passage from paragraph 25: “Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquires precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?” Since Socrates is generally respected for his teachings on justice, his words and actions are likely to be considered appropriate to King’s situation in Birmingham.

In paragraph 27 King strengthens his argument by clarifying a meaning and dramatizing the point. For example, King supports his generalization that bitterness and hatred motivate some African American nationalist extremists by citing the specific example of Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Conversely, in paragraph 31, he refers to Jesus, Paul, Luther, and others as examples of extremists motivated by love and Christianity. These examples support his assertion that extremism is not in itself wrong, and that any judgement of it must be based on its motivation and cause.

King cites authorities repeatedly throughout his letter. He refers to religious leaders such as Jesus and Martin Luther and to American political leaders such as Lincoln and Jefferson. These figures were certain to show a high degree of credibility among the clergymen.

King continues his letter on the white moderate into paragraph 32 where he begins to close on that subject and go on to the next. In paragraph 33 he expresses his disappointment in the white church and its leadership. His strongest and appealing statement comes in paragraph 37 where he writes, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” King’s use of geographical statements can be seen in paragraph 38 were he writes, “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward.” This is effective in drawing the audience towards a geographical personification.

We get a dramatic and engaging argument in paragraphs 45, 46, and 47. Here King conveys his disappointment with the clergy for praising the actions of the police and ignoring the “real heroes.” King’s strongest sentence can be found in paragraph 47 where he mentions James Meredith and quotes Rosa Parks by writing, “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” He again uses the political structures of America by ending the paragraph with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

In the last three paragraphs King closes his letter and mends any ill feelings that may have occurred. I especially like the sentence where he says, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”

We know that the civil rights movement is significant in King’s letter because he tells us so, but beyond that we recognize that the event reveals something important about the images that plagued American society. King allowed us to gain insight into whom he was and what African Americans had to endure to ensure their freedom. Yet he emotionally and rationally provided mindful and well-presented perspectives.


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