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Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Samantha Heavner

on 8 March 2015

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Transcript of Letter from Birmingham Jail

Analysis by Reilly Golden, Matthew Grieco, and Samantha Heavner
Rhetorical Framework
- Racial imbalance in American society, segregation in the south, and King's response of civil disobedience
Paragraph 14
In paragraph 14, a long segment of his argument, Dr. King discusses the necessity of his actions against discrimination, citing specific examples. He begins the paragraph by stating that African Americans have waited "more than 340 years" for their "constitutional and God-given rights." This emphasizes the dire need for present action, appealing to logos in direct opposition to those who compel civil rights leaders to wait.
The author then describes many personal examples of the consequences of racism and segregation on himself, his family, and his community in a single, ongoing sentence with many clauses. He includes several direct quotes from his own children, emphasizing the continual impact of civil rights violations on the upcoming generation, and appealing heavily to pathos.
Dr. King ends the paragraph with a polite acknowledgment of his audience, instilling in them the poignancy of his examples.
In paragraph 15 of the letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the concerns of his audience over his "willingness to break laws" through his acts of civil disobedience.
Dr. King cites a specific example, the Supreme Court decision of 1954 which outlawed segregation in public schools, and notes the paradox that exists as he breaks laws in an attempt to make others follow a law.
The author asks a rhetorical question to the clergy regarding this discrepancy, and concludes that there are both unjust and just laws. He argues that Negroes must obey just laws because it is morally right and, for the same reason, must also disobey unjust laws. MLK then concludes with a quote from St. Augustine: "an unjust law is no law at all."
He continues on to distinguish between the two types of laws in paragraphs 16-18.
In paragraph 16, Dr. King uses rhetorical questions to directly address the question of how one can determine the difference between a just and an unjust law. Dr. King answers this question simply by alluding to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas stating, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law (the laws of the universe) and natural law (the eternal law that all human beings know by reason).”
Dr. King states that a just law uplifts human personality, while unjust laws degrade it. Because segregation degrades the souls of African Americans, he explains that segregation laws are unjust. Dr. King also alludes to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich in order to show his audience segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but also morally wrong, an appeal to logos and ethos.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Paragraph 14 - Elongated Syntax
"But when you have seen..."
--> Dr. King uses a sentence in this paragraph that comprises many clauses to the point of excess, with anaphora of the initial "when..."
--> This parallels the continual abuses suffered by the African American community, the recurring discrimination that they face.
--> By linking many successive examples of the effect of racism, Dr. King demonstrates to his audience the importance of his civil disobedience.

Paragraphs 16 and 18 - Rhetorical Questions
Example: “Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”
--> The author uses several questions in these paragraphs to cast doubt on the immoral institution of segregation.
--> Compels his audience, religious leaders, to see the evils of discrimination
“Paul Tillich has said sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
“ To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
“Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an I-it relationship for an I-thou relationship and ends up regulating persons to status of things.”

Dr. King introduces paragraph 17 with an appeal to logos, introducing "a more concrete example" of the difference between just and unjust laws. He claims that an unjust law is one that the powerful majority forces the less powerful minority to obey, while the majority does not follow it themselves. A just law is one that the masses compel the minority to follow while obeying it themselves.
MLK writes "this is
made legal" in reference to unjust laws perpetuated by the hypocritical majority, and "this is
made legal" in reference to universal and just laws. This use of opposite statements in parallel phrases emphasizes the core of Dr. King's argument in paragraph 17.

Personal Overall Evaluation - Part 1
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. carefully and expertly uses appeals to pathos to connect with his audience of clergymen, demonstrating to them the importance of his actions in response to their doubts about his methods. He uses examples from his own family, as well as from the larger Negro community, in doing so highlighting the specific consequences of racial discrimination.
However, Dr. King simultaneously keeps his tone respectful because he knows that if he shows any sign of disrespect toward the clergymen, he could lose their support. He is able to impart the emotional impact of the issue without becoming over emotional to the point of fallacy himself.
He furthermore uses ethos, in addition to his emotional appeals, for the purpose of showing the clergymen that he can be trusted and he knows what he is talking about. (continued)
Paragraph 18
In Paragraph 18, Martin Luther King Jr. continues to define what makes certain laws unjust, once again making direct appeals to logos and using rhetorical questions. Dr. King argues that a law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that had no part in making said law, as a result of that minority being refused the right to vote.
He then goes on to reference the southern policies that barred African Americans from their right to vote in local and national elections. He argues that if African Americans cannot vote for or against the laws that are enacted upon them nor for the people who create and pass these laws, then how can the elected government be "democratically structured"?

Dr. King appeals most heavily to pathos in paragraph 14.
- Members of the clergy
- To convince the clergy of the evils of segregation and racism, and to illustrate that King's methods of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest are effective against those evils
Organization, Structure, Form
Paragraphs 14-18
Paragraph 15
Paragraph 16
Paragraph 17
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates his own credibility and appeals to ethos in the following ways:
Rhetorical Strategy - Symbolism
Dr. King uses symbols, particularly in paragraph 14, to appeal to the pathos of his audience and emphasize the morality of his argument against segregation.
Dr. King was extremely effective in his explanation of why segregation laws were unjust. He utilized different quotes and teachings of various religious theologians and philosophers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, and applied them to the current laws in question in order to persuade his clergymen audience to recognize why the laws were morally wrong and had to be overturned.
These allusions not only appealed to the logos, but also ethos, as his extensive knowledge of religious philosophy highlighted his intelligence and his credibility as a religious leader, himself. Also successfully establishing an important connection to the clergymen and the morality of segregation greatly aided his argument.
Overall, these paragraphs showed how talented Dr. King is as a writer and how dedicated he was to the cause of civil rights.
"The Application" from
In this scene, Oprah Winfrey portrays Annie Lee Cooper, a civil rights activist perhaps best known for punching Selma Sheriff Jim Clark. She is seen trying to register to vote in her hometown of Selma, Alabama, demonstrating the inability of African Americans to participate in the making of laws as discussed in MLK's "Letter". In reality, Annie Lee Cooper's attempt to register to vote in 1963 resulted in her being fired from her job as a nurse at a rest home.
"The nations of Africa and Asia are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter"
(paragraph 14)
--> This logically compares the achievements of the civil rights movement to the gaining of liberties of other areas of the world, emphasizing the importance of Dr. King's goals and demonstrating the absurdity of such oppression in the 'free' nation of America.
"One may well ask: 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust"
(paragraph 15).
--> This is a clever usage of logos by Dr. King, as he is aware that the educated clergymen needed a reason why Negroes obey some laws, but disobey others. The author uses this, in accordance with his reference to the Supreme Court ruling in 1954 to ban segregation in public schools, to clearly show his audience the morality behind his illegal actions.

“Paul Tillich has said sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
(paragraph 16)
--> Dr. King uses this logical syllogistic argument to appeal to the minds of his clergy audience. This is blatant use of deductive reasoning. He utilizes a step-by-step analysis of how segregation is an unjust and immoral practice.
--> This forces the audience to use their reason when following Dr. King’s argument.
“Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which...not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”
(paragraph 18)
-->Dr. King makes direct appeal to his audience’s reason in this segment. He clearly states the truth that African Americans throughout Alabama are refused their voting rights.
--> If they are refused the right to vote, how can laws such as segregation, that are enacted in order to persecute African Americans, be justified, if African Americans had no say in whether or not the laws were passed?
--> Alluding to St. Augustine: “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all'" (paragraph 15).
--> Referencing other religious leaders (paragraph 16)
Thomas Aquinas: Famous Roman Catholic theologian, wrote
Summa Theologica
Martin Buber: Jewish philosopher
Paul Tillich: Christian existential philosopher

--> Citing the concrete example of voting rights (paragraph 18)
These examples illustrate Dr. King's extensive knowledge of morality and theology.
This demonstrates the author's familiarity with the specific subject matter of racial discrimination, which is the topic of his argument, solidifying his authority to speak on this issue.
Symbolic Representation
References to family members:
"when...vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim..."
"when you suddenly find...your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park..."
"when you have to concoct an answer for your five-year-old son who is asking, 'Daddy why do white people treat colored people so mean?'"

--> By acknowledging his family, Dr. King
appeals to the emotions
of a wide audience, as all can relate to familial love. He demonstrates the consequences of racism on his loved ones, in doing so allowing others to see the evils of discrimination.
Acknowledgment of the pains suffered by African Americans:
"stinging darts of segregation"
(also a metaphor)
"hate-filled policemen"
"see her beginning to distort her personality"
"humiliated day in and day out"
"harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro"
(also parallel structure)

--> Through these intense diction choices, Dr. King connects with the
of his clergy audience by demonstrating the damaging outcomes, humiliation and hatred, of segregation and systematic discrimination.
cup of coffee
--> the basic rights for which Dr. King is fighting
The author uses this symbol to demonstrate how simplistic the civil rights movement is, as himself and his colleagues are asking only for the their innate rights as humans and Americans. The right to gain coffee at a lunch counter therefore mimics the overall goals of MLK.
--> the opportunities restricted from Negros
Dr. King allows this public amusement park to symbolize the water fountains, lunch counters, hospitals, schools, etc. that are withheld from African American use.
Furthermore, his daughter's desire to visit Funtown parallels the impact of 'separate but equal' facilities that hinder the upcoming generation of black citizens, therefore perpetuating the issue of segregation.
These symbols highlight the core points of Dr. King's argument, as they show the urgency and necessity of his actions in the movement for civil rights, as well as the consequences of discrimination that have brought about this necessity.
Rhetorical Strategy - Syntax
Rhetorical Strategy - Allusion
Personal Overall Evaluation - Part 2
Dr. King makes the following allusions in paragraph 16:
--> This directly appeals to the clergymen’s reasoning. By utilizing the words of such distinguished men, it shows the clergy logically that segregation is immoral and sinful.
--> These allusions also appeal to ethos, as King maintains his credibility as a religious leader, and connects to his audience’s Christian background
Dr. King appeals to the logos of the clergymen, strengthening his argument by showing them its logical foundation.
Annie Lee Cooper in 2007
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members arrested for holding up signs urging voter registration.
A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law...Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negros from becoming registered voters
..." (Paragraph 18)
Full transcript