An Analysis of the Use of Rhetorical Strategies in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Rhetoric can be defined today as the art of effective or persuasive, speaking or writing. With the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. It is often designed to have a persuasive effect on its audience. Throughout history, there have been many well-known rhetorers who have successfully influenced society. Many were intellectual or political leaders who used rhetoric to convince the society around them to change in a more positive direction. Socrates successfully managed to expand society to think beyond the myths of his time period to creative analysis.

President John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, and President Barak Obama also challenged and changed society’s political ideas. Some leaders like Elijah Muhammad or otherwise known as “Malcolm X” argued for the same positive outcome as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but by different and more violent means, which many would consider extreme, and not a positive influence on society. A remarkable display of rhetoric comes from Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” where King uses rhetorical strategies and Aristotelian appeals to argue in opposition to the segregation laws that plagued the southern United States. Out of all the great rhetorers, none come close to Dr. Martin Luther King and his eloquent use of rhetorical strategies.

Socrates formulated his own definition of rhetoric as, “a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments; which is practiced not only in courts and public assemblies, but in private houses also, having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike, and is in all equally right, and equally to be esteemed” (Cline). The persuasive techniques of Socrates can best be analyzed in terms of ancient Greek rhetorical theory. The nature of the Greek’s political system demanded participation. The nature of that system demanded that citizens speak. And so it became apparent that the primary political skill during this time period was the ability to speak effectively for one’s interests. The Greeks developed the concept of rhetoric to describe the art and process of effective public speaking. The importance of effective public speaking is illustrated in much of Greek literature and philosophy.

Also, the institutional structure of Athenian democracy required participation, and structurally, the participation had to be verbal, so the citizens had to speak in order to participate. “At each point in the process, some body of citizens was charged with the duty of making decisions. And those decisions were made through deliberation and voting; both speech acts. For the Greeks, to speak was to govern” (Cline). In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King describes Socrates as freeing the human mind from the bondage of myths and half-truths. Being inspired by Greek rhetoric, Dr. King feels as if it is his responsibility to free individuals from the dark depths of prejudice and racism.

Before presenting his arguments to the reader, Dr. King begins his letter with the rhetorical strategy of ethos. “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia” (King). Having experienced adversity in the past, here King presents himself as a qualified leader with extensive experience in order to dispel any doubts that the reader may have about Dr. King’s credibility.


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An Analysis of the Use of Rhetorical Strategies in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. (2023, May 13). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/an-analysis-of-the-use-of-rhetorical-strategies-in-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-s-letter-from-birmingham-jail/

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