“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Two very different quotes with different tones and use of figurative language from the same person. Martin Luther King Jr. has written many forms of literature, but the difference in tone, rhetorical appeals, the figurative language used and overall structure between the Letter from Birmingham jail and the “I Have a Dream” speech is remarkable.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. what is arguably the most famous speech of the 20th century. In his speech, he switches from light to dark tones using words and phrases, such as “momentous” and “beacon of light” for a hopeful tone, but then switches to a darker tone with words like “seared in the flames of withering injustice.” Even though he moves from light to dark imagery he does stir away from the promise of a better future. His words are meant to move the hearts of others in a non-violent demonstration. the Letter from Birmingham jail has a more calm and peaceful tone, he expresses his thoughts and emotions successfully to the readers in this way. “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” you can tell he is trying to keep the tone as calm as he can to avoid trouble and to clearly state he is trying to do this movement non-violently.
In the “I Have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King Jr. uses ethos at the beginning of the speech “ Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” By using a president that everyone looks up to makes the people believe they are fighting for the same reason. He says “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial justice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Repeatedly he says “now is the time,” he conveys pathos because it empowers the audience into believing its time to take action. He later emphasizes that there will be no peace in this country till black people get their rights, this is him conveying pathos again as it makes the audience determined to work hard to have their rights granted to them. Martin Luther King Jr. uses ethos and pathos more than logos, he is trying to emotionally move the people into supporting the civil rights movement. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. uses logos more than anything. He is trying to convince a “fellow clergyman” to understand and support the civil rights movement along with defending his actions. One main point he constantly makes is that just laws should be followed and unjust laws shouldn’t be followed, he goes on to explain in more detail defining just and unjust laws:
“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. 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. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”
Its something you can’t deny, it is a very precise definition of what just and unjust laws are. Even if it was difficult to understand the point he is making is how can we have a democratic system when not everyone is allowed to vote. This is how most of the letter is written, he argues his point without question.
At the beginning of the speech he says “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” The very first line of the speech is already doing so much, the first four words are an allusion to Linchons Gettys berg address an instantly recognizable piece of American rhetoric that links America’s founding to fight for equal rights. There is still more to this first line, he uses alliteration as five words start with the letter S. Alliteration helps a phrase stick in the mind, and he uses it repeatedly; “This sweltering summer,” “great trails and tribulation,” “The marvelous new militancy,” “the dark and desolate valley,” “of dignity and discipline.” He also uses anaphora, by repeating “one hundred years later, we refuse to believe, now is the time, we cannot be satisfied, I have a dream, and let freedom ring.” He begins with the past, present, and future with refusal to settle other than the ideal of freedom. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. uses allusion as well, he references to religious texts, does comparisons to apostle Paul, reiterates the significance of his role in the movement, and emphasizes the importance of equal rights. He uses metaphors too “If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.” He even uses hyperbole at times like when he said the streets will be flowing with blood. He uses figurative language to get his points across so the people can understand the discrimination and hardships black people suffer.
The first half of the speech is focused on the issue at hand, with discrimination and police brutality. What he demands what he wants and that for the people suffering to hold on and believe in a better future. To using non-violent actions to fight for equality, he uses a metaphor about a check that is owed to African American by the united states, he compares the American dream to the dream of equality. The other half is what the dream is, the dream of a better future the dream that will tie everyone together no matter what or who they are, as long as they are treated equally. The letter starts with him stating the reason why he is in Birmingham, and stating he believes they are good men with criticism as the criticized him for being “just an outsider.” He justifies his presences by starting his argument with “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He then debunks the accusations that the demonstrators were trying to cause chaos with no concern of the consequences. He then explains how he has been waiting long enough and if only white people understood the struggles they go through they would support him. He then explains the what just and unjust laws are and also comparing these laws to be equivalent to what Nazi Germany did. He disappointed in white moderate and white churches as they are against segregation yet they don’t show the support for it. Next, that they can’t keep this up, that one way or another change will happen as it has happened in the past with slavery. Towards the end, he explains the overwhelming abuse of power the police have and how they are being praised but not the protestors. He ends the papers in a polite and proper tone and hopes to meet the clergymen on equal terms one day.
Martin Luther King Jr. was one the most inspirational leaders in America’s history, a man with great intelligence when it comes to literature. The “I Have a Dream” speech and the Letter from Birmingham are some of the most important pieces of American rhetoric in history. Even though they were written by the same man the styling and vocabulary alone used is completely different. Not only that but it had a different tone, rhetorical appeals, use figurative language, and structure, because of him and pieces of American rhetoric he was able to achieve what he was fighting for even in death. Now because of him “all of Gods children,…will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Nergo spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”