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¶ … MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail is written to his "fellow clergymen" and is meant to serve as a rebuttal to their charges that his protests, which have landed him in jail, are "unwise and untimely" (King, Jr.). The actions that King's confreres deem as unwise are his protests -- his acts of civil disobedience -- in pursuit of civil rights. The letter is meant to be a persuasive argument in defense of his actions as a protestor in Birmingham, Alabama. Being an epistolary rebuttal, its audience is not confined to the addressees but may be said to include anyone who might gain access to the letter, whether through private or public intercourse. The secondary audience would be anyone interested in understanding King's motivation in going to Birmingham and participating in the protests. The main idea of the letter is to show how he is justified in taking the actions that have led to his arrest. This paper will describe and analyze the rhetoric that King utilizes in his letter.

King first declares that he is answering the criticism not because it is criticism but because the critics are men who he believes to be of "good will" (King, Jr.). Thus, by responding his is honoring them and their reputations. This gives credibility to his letter, situating it in a friendly and respectful context. Not only does this give credibility but so too does his reason for being in Alabama in the first place: King places his credentials as a Southern "insider" at the fore, stating, "I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference…with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia…[and] affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights" (King, Jr.). Thus, King asserts his position as a leader of the community -- not an "outsider," as he has been called. This rhetoric supplies him with the degree of authority necessary to make a subsequently convincing argument.

King's intention is to defend himself against the criticism of being unwise and untimely and he does so by showing that from the first he was "invited" to Alabama and has "organizational ties" to the region. However, King ramps up his argument by appealing to pathos, stating that "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here" -- as though he were a crusader against Injustice (King, Jr.). Indeed, he compares himself to the "prophets of the eighth century" who crusaded in other towns that were not their own (King, Jr.). Regardless, being in Atlanta, he feels a kinship for those in Alabama. In fact, no American can ever be branded an outsider when he is in America, states King. All of these points are made to underscore his sense of having the qualities of inclusion and leadership rather than the sense of his critics, which is that he is an agitator and self-promoter.

His next point is aimed at the "demonstrations" that his critics "deplore" (King, Jr.). King asks why it is they deplore these actions but do not deplore the conditions that brought about the actions. King emphasizes the unjust environment that his people must suffer because of inequality. He agrees with his critics that the demonstrations are unfortunate but asserts that the "white power structure" in Birmingham makes such protests a necessity (King, Jr.).

King does not make this assertion of necessity without backing it up with facts. This is an important part of his rhetoric: arguments must be supported by evidence. He has already shown his authority in the matter. Now he shows what he has uncovered in the course of his study of the matter.

His research into the conditions of Birmingham's citizens now occupies the next section of the letter. King explains that his process of choosing when and where to demonstrate is based on a four-step formula: first, determining that injustice exists; second, negotiating to end the injustice; third, self-purification; and fourth, taking action. This formula is meant to show that King is rational in his methods and not simply grandstanding or making himself the center of attention.

King notes that each of these four conditions has been met in Birmingham. His implication is that there is nothing "untimely" about the demonstration, since it has been preceded by a thorough and formulaic investigation. The conditions for injustice are widely known, he first shows. Second, negotiations proceeded as a result of these injustices, but King shows that city leaders refused to change initially but after some months, the city's merchants made some indication that they would stop with their race-baiting signs. King shows next how the negotiation process was working until the merchants failed to keep their promises. Negroes had no choice but to renew their demonstrations. First, self-purification sessions were conducted in which the process of non-violent or civil disobedience was taught. Finally, demonstration was the end result of this research. However, the demonstrators showed prudence in postponing their demonstrations until after elections so as not to "cloud" the issues, states King. His point is that the protests were not an emotional response to racism in Birmingham but the calmly plotted and planned course of action of rational and responsible human beings who wanted, if possible, to achieve their aims through the established democratic process -- that is, at the ballot box.

This method of describing his behavior is important for cementing his argument in rational discourse. King's rhetoric is not emotional but rational. He even explains what direct action is and why it is necessary as part of the negotiation process. Negotiations have to be backed up by action and when they are not, there has to be some alternative means of achieving one's aim. He even appeals to Socrates, the ancient authority on philosophy and society. By appealing to Socrates as a defender of the action of creating "tension" in the mind so as to free individuals from injustice, King shows not only his intelligence and understanding of classical philosophy but also his willingness to follow ancient principles in the face of modern injustice.

His letter proceeds in an even more rational method as he begins to analyze what it means to be just. He provides examples of laws that are just and unjust, and in this manner he makes use of several rhetorical devices, such as similes and metaphors, alluding to the length of time in which Negroes have been oppressed and that the "time" for action has come. Each of these points returns the reader to the initial argument that he has acted neither "untimely" nor "unwisely." Additionally, by referencing Socrates, the Old Testament, the history of the Roman Empire, and American history, King shows that he is actually very well-educated and would be considered wise in most circles. By referencing the difficult oppression that his people have faced for centuries, he shows that he is not "untimely" either. Thus, King indirectly answers the charges applied to him, which indicates both confidence in his ability and informality in his approach. The letter is, after all, a communication between confreres on the primary level, though on the secondary level it is a justification before the world.

This justification takes on a greater metaphorical position when King alludes to the "legal" means that Hitler used to oppress certain individuals and asserts that had he been in Germany at that time he would have taken the same course as he takes today. Thus, King sets himself up as a fighter against tyranny and oppression in the very broadest terms, using an iconic image of evil to drive home his point.

Finally, King attacks the logic of his confreres, who assert that their peaceful demonstrations lead to violence. He states that if there is any irrationality in this debate it is on the side of his fellow clergymen. Violence does not come from peaceful demonstrators, but from those who oppose peace and peaceful negotiations. If the clergymen want to oppose violence, they should send their concerns to the white establishment in Birmingham, not to King. This reasoning leads into his last point, which is that the Body of Christ, Christ's Church itself, is under attack through this oppression by a racist tyrannical regime. If the clergymen care at all about God's people, they would see that King is on the side of His sheep. He pleads to be seen as a shepherd and not typecast as an agitator or "integrationist" or a "civil-rights" activist. He is none of these things because none of these fully captures what he is about: he is about being a Christian and Christian clergyman.

Thus, King shifts the focus from the issue of segregation and turns into a religious issue, appealing to the common faith that he shares with the clergymen who have accused him. By refocusing the issue away from the controversial one that faces the entire nation to the more fundamental issue that united much of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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