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Martin Luther King's rhetorical appeal: Letters from Birmingham City Jail

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Molly Hamill

on 17 September 2012

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Transcript of Martin Luther King's rhetorical appeal: Letters from Birmingham City Jail

photo credit Nasa / Goddard Space Flight Center / Reto Stöckli Rhetorical Analysis: Letters from Birmingham City Jail King uses a number of rhetorical devices including a hybrid form of the "negro preaching" oral tradition and the frame of addressing clergymen to persuade his audience. His intended audience is not the clergy. King's audience is primarily moderate whites, but on a larger scale King seeks to address the whole world in order to create a more global consciousness. Background for the Writing of the Letter:
Birmingham was one of the most staunchly segregated cities in the country. Years after the precedent was set Birmingham still ignored the Brown vs. Board of education ruling. On Good Friday April 12, 1963 King and Reverand Ralph Albernathy led a small group of protesters in a march in downtown Birmingham. After marching eight blocks they were arrested. While in jail King wrote the letter in response to An "Appeal for law and Order and Common Sense" written by eight clergy men who criticized him as an extremist and an outsider. The letter was first published in a 1963 addition of the leftist magazine Liberation . Of the letter and its reception King said: "This letter helped to focus greater international attention on what was going on in Birmingham. And I am sure that without Birmingham the march on Washington would not have been called...It was also the image of Birmingham which, to a great extent, helped the civil rights come into being in 1963." In the Letter King explains his presence in Birmingham first on a practical level by explaining his assocaiation with SCLC and then on a more moral level by explaining that he felt compelled to come because he saw injustice.

This illustrates part of King's rhetorical style: he uses a double framework in which appeals are made first on the immediate practical level and then on a level of principle. This practical or logical appeal is a major difference between King's style and the traditional black sermon.

Here we also see evidence of King's yearning for a brotherhood of man, he wants a world in which injustice is a matter of concern for all people not just those directly involved. "The Birmingham campaign, and of SCLC efforts in general, depended heavily on support
from white moderates—Americans already inclined to oppose racial segregation
in principle and to feel uncomfortable about the discrepancy between their
basic values and the discriminatory policies then practiced in the South, but who
were also fearful about direct action campaigns and the threat they posed to public
order."

--Michael Leff and Ebony A. Utley writers of instrumental and Constitutive Rhetoric in Martin Luther King Jr.'s"Letter From Birmingham Jail". King needed the attention of the moderate whites.The eight clergymen gave him the perfect frame from which to directly address this demographic. The clergymen become a synedoche representing all the moderate whites and King becomes representative of all Africans seeking direct non violent action. His imprisonment works on both levels: he himself is in jail and the African Americans are also imprisoned by racism and segregation laws. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" A Traditional Black Sermon
Intro: creates common religious ground.
Statement of text (usually from the bible)
Body: repeated emotional climaxes
Conclusion: resolves emotional tension and calls sinners to God. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. This can be considered a statement of text; King justifies his being in Birmingham with the desire to stop injustice and help others just as Paul of Tarsus did. Creating an association between himself and Paul gives King more credibility especially among religious whites. The connection created between Paul and King helps bolster the idea that King is not an extremist but rather part of a long line of those who opposed the status quo in order to help people. It is also interesting to note that Paul of Tarsus reflects a utopian world community. This underscores King's wish for a brotherhood of all man. Other Forms of Rhetoric:
King strays from the sermon model because he uses logic to bolster his points and he cites authorities outside of the bible (Socrates, Thoreau, Jefferson). He also uses the repetitive form to create a sense of identity without alienating himself from the audience. He grounds himself in Christiantiy which is relatbale. King is rather moderate, he places himself in the middle of those that are apathetic about civil rights and militant black nationalists. King also keeps a reserved and respectful tone throughout the letter which illustrates he is not the extremist white moderates make him out to be but rather a patient resonable man seeking justice and a brotherhood of all men. King's impassioned paragraph that begins "But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers " can be seen as the body of the sermon because it builds up our emotions through constant repetition of the word "when" followed by an injustice.This repetition at the beinning of a clause is called anaphora and it adds to the musicality of the passage which leads the reader forward. The entire thing is actually a three hundred and thirty one word sentence. This was an intentional style choice: the syntax of the sentences suspends the completion of the sentence until the very end forcing the reader into waiting through this list of atrocities just as the black man is told to wait patiently for his rights. This list of atrocities is aimed directly at the moderate whites who would prefer that blacks stay in line with the law and wait patiently rather than act now. This paragraph loaded with pathos seeks to inform whites about the injustices going on that they don't always see. King calls for a community where all people care about one another and help those in need. For King it is not enough to be opposed to racism or segregation you have to also help combat it. "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. "- Martin Luther King jr. Here King is putting the passive whites on par with the violent ones underscoring King's belief that we have a responsiblity to our fellow human beings. Thus one who does not act is just as bad as one who acts violently.
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