Letter From a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

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The sixties were a harshly divided time in America. Though the Civil War and slavery occurred in the past, segregation and racism still remained deeply embedded in the roots of Southern culture. In a society that tried to silence all African Americans, a few people fought to make their voices heard, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While imprisoned for his participation in the peaceful Birmingham protest, he received a letter from his fellow clergymen that urged him to stop the public civil rights demonstrations and wait for the law to take care of the situation. As a response, King wrote his powerful manifesto, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” in which he argues the clergymen and moderate white people that nonviolent direct action creates just enough tension to foster the negotiation that could quickly end segregation.

In his letter, King justifies his belief in direct action by addressing the clergymen’s questions and concerns using logical appeals. Then he shifts his tone as he relies on charged diction and syntax to evoke feelings of patriotism and sympathy. He lastly pulls together his argument with a powerful call to action that provides the audience with a sense of moral obligation. Through these tactics, King successfully defends the validity of direct nonviolent action.

As he writes in response to the concerns of the clergymen, Dr. King answers their questions directly in order to create a formal tone and foster a respectful connection between the author and the reader. First, he addresses the question, “Why direct action?” In response, King explains the goals of his nonviolent cause, asserting the idea that African Americans cannot gain their rights without “nonviolent direct action (that) seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension.” He does this to explain to those who doubt his intentions that his protests are for the greater good of the country.

This implies that direct action is the most effective way to ensure equality among the races. Then, while answering the same question, he alludes to Socrates’ belief that individuals need tension to rise out of “bondage and half truths.” This reference shows a connection between King and Socrates, since both men believed in challenging accepted information by creating tension and both were arrested for speaking out against the corrupt ideals of the government. King uses these methods to justify his motives and explain how they worked in the past. Then he acknowledges the second question: “Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

First, he politely concedes to the idea that negotiation is important, but then clarifies that negotiation cannot exist without direct action because the purpose of his protests are to “create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” By emphasizing how their want for negotiation was a key factor in his nonviolent direct action method, he shows that his protests present a compromise between the two opposing sides. This makes his argument sensible and agreeable because it causes the white moderates and clergymen to feel their concerns being taken into consideration.

After writing to his audience in a formal and informative way for the first half of the letter, King establishes a tone that is saddened, frustrated, and passionate when speaking of the turmoil African Americans face on a daily basis. He does this in order to express the urgency of desegregation. The first emotions he targets include patriotism and frustration. Since most people hate to see their country fall behind others, he juxtaposes the speeds at which Asia and Africa gain their independence to how America moves “at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” From this, the readers can recognize the need for urgent desegregation, for the sake of America’s future.

Then, in a long periodic sentence, he points out the violence and disrespect that African Americans face in order to evoke a sense of guilt in the reader and make them see the need for change through direct action. Charged diction enhances the emotions of passion and pain in this sentence by highlighting the violence that one in King’s situation might face. This involves words such as “smothering”, “kill”, “lynch”, and racial slurs. One of the most heartbreaking parts of King’s letter occurs in a short anecdote of a conversation between a young child and his father. He asks his dad “why do white people treat colored people so mean?” Society as a whole treasures childhood innocence, so to increase the emotional impact of his argument, King mentions a way that the mistreatment of black people can taint a child.

Because of this, the clergymen or any white moderate reading the piece may feel sympathy towards the youth and resentment towards society’s ways. King organizes this paragraph-long sentence with anaphora by repeating the phrase “when you,” and following with a tragic circumstance to which white Americans cannot relate. This includes the sentence, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mother and father at will.” He designs the syntax in this manner to emphasize the repetitive nature of these discriminatory acts that will not stop without direct action.

Later, to summarize his argument, King pulls together his statements on nonviolent protests with a call to action for the readers to demand peaceful change. Throughout his manifesto, he expresses the scarcity of time when it comes to the fight for civil rights. He writes in an urgent manner when he expresses that the Birmingham protest could not occur any later because African Americans are “no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.” The strong imagery of this metaphor illustrates to the reader the frustration that leads peaceful men to demand their rights. This helps them understand how anguishing it is to constantly be denied human rights.

In one paragraph, he repeats the word “wait” to imply that the government refused to help minorities enough times for it to be deeply irritating. This sense of frustration explains to the clergymen that African Americans cannot just sit and let societal change happen because “wait has almost always meant never.” To further convince the moderate whites that immediate action must be taken, he targets one’s sense of moral obligation by arguing, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” While he expresses that he understands fair laws are meant to be followed, he calls the audience to do what he stands for, not waiting for the law to fix itself. This appeals to the audience’s desire for order, while still urging them to take action to defend their brothers of color

King’s methods of arguing for his beliefs, as seen in both this letter and his many other influential speeches, are always emotionally powerful, respectful, and rational, making him become one of the most prominent faces of the civil rights movement. The idea of nonviolent direct action expressed in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contributed greatly to the desegregation of America, because millions of African Americans began protesting in marches and sit-ins in order to make their demands for civil rights heard without harming their oppressors.


Cite this paper

Letter From a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. (2021, Jun 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail-by-martin-luther-king-jr/

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