One of the most famous documents in American writing is the 1963 letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his jail cell in Birmingham. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in response to eight clergymen who had condemned his recent anti-segregation protests calling them “unwise and untimely” (1). Shortly before this time, slavery and segregation had been abolished. However, these laws were not enforced; African Americans were not not treated as equals, and nothing was being done to stop the inequality. King led movements to bring attention to the fact that these laws were not being implemented.
Even though King led peaceful and legal protests, he was still arrested and thrown in jail for his actions. King’s letter had two objectives: to explain the anti-segregation movement and to defend the nonviolent actions which were the cause of his imprisonment. King watched as his letter began to fulfill its purpose; support for the African-American Movement began to grow . Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of the most influential and convincing examples of a written argument that the world has today because King uses many rhetorical strategies to convince his audience, the eight clergymen, to reverse their stance on the issue.
Dr. King was well qualified to speak on behalf of the African-American community, and he made his credibility known in his letter. King was the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an ordained minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Dr. King was sure to include all of this information in his letter so that his readers would see him as a man of high integrity and intelligence. Because King included his accomplishments in his letter, his readers saw him as a high authority and valued his words.
King saw great importance in clarifying the difference between just and unjust laws. King emphasizes this point by contrasting the two stories of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and Adolf Hitler. King is trying to convey his message that just because a law exists does not mean that the law is just. King goes on to explain that he and his readers have an obligation to disobey those unjust laws (16). He compares his situation to that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by explaining how they stood up against the laws of men because they knew that it was morally wrong (21).
King contrasts this point by re-examining a story that most people know and recognize to be immoral and vile. Dr. King analyzes Hitler’s reign through the eyes of the law and reveals that everything Hitler did during his time in power was in agreeance with the law. King also submits that helping a Jew during that time in Germany was illegal, but, like he is doing now, he would break the laws of men to uphold a greater moral standard (22). King proposes that the mistreatment of African-Americans, legal or not, is morally wrong. He attempts to persuade the reader that the morality of actions matters more than the legality of actions. Dr.
King tries to grab his readers’ attention by appealing to their emotions. King appeals to his readers’ emotions through a personal story: the story of his own children. King reflects on the heartbreaking time when he had to stand speechless as his children asked him questions about segregation and the feeling of inferiority to whites (14). Specifically, in paragraph fourteen, King refers to a time when he became “tongue twisted” and found his “speech stammering” (14). King had to explain to his teary-eyed six year-old daughter why she could not go to the amusement park that she had seen on television because the park was segregated (14).
He continues to explain that he could “see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky” (14). He presents this powerful picture of an oblivious child who wants to believe the world is full of good, but is instead being destroyed by the presence of evil in the world she lives in. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used many rhetorical strategies in the writing of his “Letter From Birmingham Jail. ” His use of similes and metaphors gave great emphasis and power to the points he was trying to make. For example, King refers to a time when African-Americans were told to wait for a more convenient time to demand justice.
King suggests that there will never be a good time to address this issue for those who are unaffected by the “disease of segregation” (13). When Dr. King talks about the “disease of segregation,” he emphasises the negative and damaging effects that segregation has on the oppressed. King’s use of metaphors gives an aspect of realism to the issue of segregation. Dr. King continues his use of rhetorical strategies by using similes throughout his letter. King compares segregation to a skin abscess. King says that segregation is “[l]ike a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up” (24).
He goes on to explain that like a boil, segregation must be “opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light” (24). King is able to get the point across that as long as segregation is ignored and covered up it will only become more dangerous. He goes on to explain that the “injustice must be exposed” (24) before true healing can be reached. King also uses many allusions throughout his letter to the eight clergymen. King knew who his audience would be and tailored his letter to best relay his message to the clergymen. Dr. King alluded to biblical characters and other famous philosophers many times in his letter.
King set an expectation that his readers would have knowledge of the characters that he spoke of with little or no explanation. For example, King references the Apostle Paul and his efforts to carry the message of Jesus Christ beyond his hometown. King uses Paul’s legacy to explain his own actions; he left his home in Montgomery, AL and went to Birmingham to “carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] home town” (3). King insured that his readers would be able to understand his message by utilizing parallelism, repetition, and rhetorical questions. King used phrases that were similar or, in some cases, the same to share his ideas.
When phrases are similar, in parallelism, or the same, in repetition, readers are able to better understand ideas that are being compared or contrasted. King uses parallelism to explain that his frustration with “Shallow understanding from people of good will” (23) is lesser than his frustration with “absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” (23). Dr. King utilizes repetition throughout his letter as well. In paragraph forty-nine King uses repetition as he asks for forgiveness. “If I have said anything… that overstates the truth… I beg you to forgive me.
If I have said anything that understates the truth… I beg God to forgive me. ” King is able to make the reader understand how he feels about his message in relation to his readers and in relation to God. King also puts use to rhetorical question. By asking these questions strategically, King leads his readers to think and reflect on the topic from a different standpoint. “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? ” (31) is the question that King asks his readers. King submits that his readers are all extremists whether they choose to be or not. King suggests that the readers do, however, get to ecide what kind of extremists they will be.
The clergymen can advocate spreading love or hate. King urges the readers to be extremists for love. In conclusion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a powerful example of argument in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail. ” Dr. King made sure his readers respected him and understood his credentials to speak on behalf of the African American community. King also appealed to the readers logic when he made the distinction between just and unjust laws by comparing the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the story of Adolf Hitler.
Then, King appeals to the readers’ emotions when he tells stories of his children trying to understand segregation. King adds dimension to his argument with the use of rhetorical strategies. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an argument that: was well written in response to the eight clergymen who had spoken against King; is convincing and creative in its use of rhetorical strategies and appeals to emotion, authority, and logic; and remains, even today, one of the most widely known and respected examples of an argument.