Image of a Modern Movement: Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail


Image of a Modern Movement: Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail


In April 1963, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, esteemed religious leader

and activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr penned what has since become a landmark treatise on

racial equality. Written while incarcerated in Alabama following a public demonstration, King’s

Letter from Birmingham Jail is crafted with a single purpose in mind: respond to a recently-

published statement by white religious leaders deploring his anti-segregation efforts. I imagine

that King was driven to write his letter by envisioning the effects this public statement may have

on participators in his movement if not responded to immediately and thoroughly. With social

pressures mounting and their most visible and respected leader in jail, this period may well have

been a very disheartening time for King’s supporters; by utilizing convincing rhetorical

strategies, King effectively negates his opponents’ argument and provides morale to his own

supporters. Therefore, the principal audience for this letter is the group of clergymen who wrote

the public statement denouncing direct action, with both supporters and opponents of direct

action serving as the secondary audience. Interestingly, the rhetorical devices of Dr. King’s

article are not impeded, and are even aided at times, by his presence in a public jail at the time of

writing. King garners sympathy to the cause of the civil rights groups across the nation through

his masterful use of shocking diction, moving imageries, quotation, and comparison.

One of the most effective rhetorical devices employed in Letter from Birmingham Jail is

the use of eloquent and often shocking diction designed to evoke emotional responses from the

reader. Some of the most powerful examples of this device come as Dr. King refutes the

clergymen’s’ call for what they deem “patience”on the part of black citizens. Using detailed

examples, spoken in the second-person so as to inspire his audience to note its personal

relevance, he allows his audience to emotionally experience a sample of the challenges and

dangers that face black citizens under the culture of segregation. When Dr. King writes of

“lynch[ing] your mothers and fathers at will and drown[ing] your sisters and brothers at whim,”

he shows the terrors of racial violence which plague southern communities. This demonstration

of modern horrors is aided by King’s use of jarring diction; terms such as “lynch,” “drown,”

“brutalize,” and “kill” paint an image of violence that is abhorrent to the morals of modern

individuals and communities. Dr. King effectively builds the pathos of his argument by

involving his readers emotionally in the physical dangers faced by members of his personal


Similarly, in the same passage, Dr. King evokes another emotional response in his

audience by creating a strong and detailed pattern of moving imagery. Anxious to communicate

to his audience the injustice of life under segregation, Dr. King illustrates a parent’s interactions

with their children when those children are forced to confront racism or face the disparaging

personal limits imposed by segregation. By using detailed and expressive images involving

children, Dr. King draws on the natural emotional responses of parents and caregivers. His words

inspire sympathy for the children in his images when he writes of “tears welling up in her little

eyes,” and “clouds of inferiority begin[ning] to form in her little mental sky.” (King) The form of

expression utilized in the context of these examples hints to the audience that perhaps they are

scenes which truly transpired between Dr. King and his own children, further increasing the

audience’s emotional connection to both the illustration and Dr. King himself.

In addition to crafting emotional imageries in his article, Dr. King expertly uses a variety

of quotations from both his opponents and supporting religious sources. He does so in order to

effectively state the counter-arguments made by his opponents and respond to them in an

authoritative and definitive manner. A prime example of this device is found as Dr. King

transitions to discussing the difference between just and unjust laws. He writes, “One may well

ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in

the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would

agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”” (King) In this brief passage, the

first quote is taken from the statement by opposing religious leaders to introduce this key

counter-argument, and the second draws on the teachings of respected religious authorities to

establish ethos and eloquently begin to establish a resolution to said argument. King’s abundant

use of quotations in this manner contributes greatly to the strength and clarity of his argument.

Due to his intimate knowledge of the addressed audience, Dr. King is well-positioned to draw on

religious teachings (with which he is well-versed given his own occupation) to develop both his

logos and ethos.

As Dr. King builds his argument using quotations from respected individuals of both

religious and national history, he is inspiring his audience to believe that if these influential

characters were alive today, they would support his claims. This effect is very powerful in

potentially aligning opponents of King’s ideologies with at least some of the core concepts which

he discusses in this text. When the opposing clergymen, in their public statement, denounce Dr.

King as an “extremist,” Dr. King draws on quotations and comparisons to change the audience’s

perception of the term. While incorporating quotations from individuals ranging from religious

figures to founding fathers, Dr. King argues that extremism is a form of progress and of forward-

thinking, an unwillingness to settle for anything less than love and justice. This re-definition of

what it means to be an extremist can be seen when he asks rhetorically, “Was not Jesus an

extremist in love? … Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? … Was not Thomas Jefferson an

extremist?” (King) This argument is effective for his audience and proves difficult to refute

because of the reputation of its subjects and their ties to both religion and patriotism.

Comparable to the style in which his use of quotations lends others’ ethos unto his own, it

is also a recurring theme of Letter from Birmingham Jail to draw comparisons between points of

the argument and notable events or situations in history. Dr. King offers several comparisons

between those individuals involved in civil rights demonstrations and ancient religious figures.

Supporters of direct action, who are labeled as participators in civil disobedience by King’s

political opponents, are compared to ancient Jews and Christians. These historical individuals,

according to Dr. King, defied the laws of their time in order to follow a “higher moral law.”

(King) In constructing this effective comparison, Dr. King builds his argument by claiming the

moral high ground for his own movement and ideology. This moral stance surely has a highly

motivating effect on those members of the audience who participate in direct action and

otherwise support desegregation, while perhaps causing some of the opponents of these

initiatives to reconsider their position.

Another highly effective comparison in this letter is that which is drawn connecting

segregation and “Hitler’s Germany”, in which once again the differences between legality and

morality are shown. For nearly all Americans, when any sort of parallel is drawn between an

individual, organization, or idea and Adolf Hitler or Nazi Germany, the principle or object being

compared is immediately regarded as something immoral and worthy of rejection. Dr. King

hopes to draw upon this cultural reflex by equating the institution of segregation with Nazism

while simultaneously connecting those individuals who resist segregation with freedom fighters

who combated the Nazi regime. There are also parallels implied between the victims of racial

attacks and genocide during World War 2 and the victims of racial attacks and segregation at the

present time. Any opponent of Dr. King’s will desire to resist his assertions that illegal direct

action is merited, and yet will be exceedingly reluctant to express as much, as doing so would

put them on the side of Nazi Germany in the comparison drawn. Using such a concrete example

that is still fresh in the nation’s cultural memory, having occurred only a few short decades ago,

puts the opponents of his argument in a difficult position.

With emotionally-driven language and a definitively moral and religious context

throughout, Letter from Birmingham Jail expresses an effective argument in favor of civil rights

movements’ direct action policies. Dr. King shows a comprehensive understanding of his

audience while masterfully applying the rhetorical devices of shocking diction, moving imagery,

quotation, and comparison. Though we as modern readers may not be members of the original

audience, the same breed of challenges which inspired this treatise to be crafted in 1963 are still

debated and continue to be relevant today. One need only refer to recent Supreme Court cases

pertaining to the consideration of race in college admissions, for example, to recognize that racial

injustice is still a point of contention in our society. By revisiting and maintaining in our cultural

conscience the messages taught in Letter from Birmingham Jail, these challenges will continue to

progress towards complete and just resolution. We as a nation will secure racial equality for all

only as we as individuals pursue justice and fairness for our neighbors. As Dr. King emphatically

declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This historic document aids us

in our nation’s quest for social justice today just as inspiringly as when it was first published

over half a decade ago.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Atlantic Monthly; August

1963; The Negro Is Your Brother; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 78-88.

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