Letter From Birmingham Jail and The Ballot or the Bullet

Updated June 14, 2021

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Letter From Birmingham Jail and The Ballot or the Bullet essay

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African American authors have covered different topics ranging from their social, economic and political experiences to their racial plight. Two of the most recognized voices in the racial debate in terms of their activism and literary contributions are Martin Luther King (MLK) and Malcolm X. Two of their literary pieces, MLK’s ‘letter from Birmingham Jail’ and ‘The Ballot or Bullet” are informed by different situations that faced the authors at that time. Nonetheless, the pieces were written in a quest to push for civil rights in the US for African Americans and advocate for an end to segregation.

The authors use different approaches and literary techniques to achieve their goals and their message is reiterated in other texts by African Americans as illustrated in the discussion below. Racial Segregation across different authors First off, it is important to look at ‘The Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ and understand the context of the writing. In April 1963, MLK was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, after defying a court order nullifying the protest march against segregation. A panel of white moderate clergymen published an article in a local publication condemning the protest march prompting MLK to respond from his jail.

It is this response that would be published and distributed widely and was acclaimed as one of the most important civil rights publications. In writing the letter, MLK was going against Rawls’s theory of public reason. The law calls for citizens and public officials to refrain from revealing strong religious and philosophical doctrines in public deliberation on matters of basic justice (Dyer & Stuart 149). As for ‘the Ballot or the Bullet’, it was a speech by Malcolm X which was delivered on April 3, 1964, at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. As a human rights activist and a Muslim, Malcolm was regarded by the mainstream white-dominated media as a public nuisance for his often radical approaches in calling for racial equality.

Earlier on, Malcolm had made a name in the American public media for his role as the spokesperson of a radical religious organization called Nation of Islam. The organization was known for its calls for separatism as opposed to integration as called for by the Civil Rights Movement to replace the offending segregation policies. Malcolm’s speech was a condemnation of the government for failing to fully implement the civil rights bill passed into law on Feb 10 1964. His piece was inspired by his experiences and current events in the public domain manifested in police brutality and general racial hostilities.

From the introduction of the two pieces, it is evident that the two authors were challenging racial discrimination and inequality in America. Although the issue is presented from a political angle by the two authors, other writers have taken a different angle. In the short story ‘Becky’ by Toomer Cane, the issue of racial segregation and racism takes a social angle. The story highlights the ostracization of a white woman by both blacks and whites for the mere fact that she was mothering two mixed-race sons. Both the whites and blacks rejected her for transgressing the expected racial divide.

Members of her community built the lady a small hut outside town by the railroads. The story paints in details the social effects of segregation policies. Cane’s story shows the social acceptance of segregation while ‘The New Negro’ pictures changing perceptions and attitudes towards racial relations. The changes and movement for the blacks that are explained in ‘The New Negro’ are more of a mental and physical transformation. The author writes that ‘and finally, with the Negro rapidly in the process of class differentiation, if it ever was warrantable to regard and treat the Negro en masse, it is becoming with every day less possible, more unjust and more ridiculous” (975). The author notes that the migration of the negroes from southern states into the northern and midland cities opened up a new chapter in the Negros’ American experience.

Thus, the modernization of America transformed the nature of inequality from countryside lifestyles to city ones and motivated people like Malcolm X and MLK to challenge the segregation laws and push for racial equality. The city lifestyle such as stores that Malcolm X addresses in his piece offered new fronts to fight segregation. For MLK, his letter indicated that African Americans and Christians, in particular, had the obligation to transform the government systems and society in general. He wrote that ‘I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. … Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for.’

He continued to say that ‘I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’” MLK believed that spiritual and physical needs could not be separated and hence Christians could not preach loving one another and being equal in the eyes of God while segregation and racism were institutionalized and widely practised. In contrast, Malcolm’s speech stayed clear of religion and spiritual matters with regards to equality, civil rights and segregation. While the man had applied religion to argue against segregation, the letter marked a new approach advocated by MLK pertaining to civil disobedience.

In civil disobedience, MLK believed that the civil disobedience of African Americans would weaken the social and economic order of the white-dominated society and force it into implementing integration. Thus, while MLK applied a spiritual approach and civil disobedience in his push for equality, Malcolm X used a radical approach in which he threatened the government to enforce equality through the ballot or using force. However, Malcolm was cynical that the government would implement the needed changes. Essentially, both writers placed the onus of attaining equality upon the African Americans by using different means.

For MLK, civil disobedience was the path forward while for Malcolm, electing the right leaders who believed in the civil rights act was the best way forward. Among the four writers addressed above, it is evident that their perception towards racial segregation was highly dependent on the events of their times. In Toomer, it is obvious that segregation was acceptable and the highlights some acts of kindness by her community that was in fact the oppressor. In “The New Negro”, the philosophical approach to segregation and the identity and self-awareness of the black man is highlighted. All these texts address the same topic but view it differently informed by their social and political climate of their times.

For Malcolm and MLK, their works were written at a time when America was actively engaged in debate over civil rights and social justice for the black people. Techniques MLK ‘The Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ and Malcolm X’s ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ are two very persuasive speeches but in different ways. Malcolm X gets does not beat around the bush and says that blacks will push for racial equality by whatever means. This is a radical approach. Malcolm gives an ultimatum to the government and the political class to implement the civil rights ac fully or face an armed uprising from African Americans.

In contrast, MLK takes a rational approach by pushing nonviolent protests and boycotts. In using civil disobedience and boycotts, MLK was appealing to the original acts of civil rights pioneers such as Rosa Park who refused to give up her seat to a white man in a bus. Malcolm X uses the rhetorical devices of logos, ethos, and pathos better in “The Ballot or the Bullet” than King does in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” because he is more assertive with his tone and will do anything to meet his goals. In applying ethos, a writer uses his ethical appeal or one’s past reputation/credibility in order to persuade a person or a group of people to share his views. Malcolm X attain this by declaring his religious identity at the beginning of his speech to say that he was no longer associated by the radical group Nation of Islam.

He says that the goal of his speech was to address “a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim…” (Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet). Thus, by declaring his speech as free from religious influence, he advises his audience not to misjudge his intentions. Malcolm X applies logos in the speech by appealing to reason and logic. He starts off by describing the situation in the country.

He says that “All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man” (Malcolm X ). He also applies deductive reasoning to show that the blacks have contributed a fair share to their problem by spending money in white-owned stores. The whites use the stores to remove money from black communities and spend in white communities for improvement.

Malcolm reasoned that the blacks could address the situation by setting up their own stores to serve their people. Malcolm’s speech also applies ethos exceptionally well. Ethos is to convince people about the credibility of the persuader. He does that by saying he’s not changing from himself and he still has friends and enemies. Such a statement shows true power and authority and conviction about his arguments and beliefs. For MLK, the power of his speech lies in the use of pathos in targeting emotional appeal of his audience. He cites sensitive issues including: “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”, and “when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters.”

To the audience, he is reminding the people of the fear and terror that has emanated from segregation and racial inequality that has demeaned African Americans and tramped on their dignity as a people. Toomer Cane’s literary piece also captures race relations same as Malcolm and MLK’s pieces but applies a different literary technique and approach. The two speeches are hinged on persuading audiences to share the speaker’s viewpoints while Cane’s piece is a narration of events. The strength of Cane’s narration lies in the use of vivid details and repetition. The story talks of the tribulations of a lonely white woman chased away from her community and forced to live in a strip of land next to the railroads.

The author described vividly her despair and suffering in a weak shelter that trembled as trains rambled nearby. Social context and audience The 1960s decade was dominated by the calls for civil rights, a movement spearheaded by MLK and Malcolm X among many others. Although there is no specific date to the beginning of the civil rights movement, the 60s decade saw the most vibrant activities. It is worth noting that civil rights protests had started way back in 1913 when Rosa Parks played a pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, the works of MLK as a clergyman and his push for non-violent approaches was instrumental in promoting racial equality and civil rights for blacks in America.

Although he played many roles and wrote many texts calling for the banning of segregation, his letter from Birmingham jail was instrumental in marking the involvement of the church in the civil rights movement. The fact that the letter was a response to another article by a panel of clergymen somehow blamed the church for promoting segregation and the dehumanization of blacks through racial injustice. The letter prompted the church and Christians, in general, to play a more active role and practising the word by embracing other races. Malcolm’s speech also played an integral role in identifying small but subtle ways that ordinary black people could use in fighting racial inequality and injustice. He noted that boycotting shopping in white-owned shops could help a lot.

Again, Malcolm reconciled different religions and viewpoints in pointing out the common enemy and problem and even acknowledging the contributions of MLK as a clergyman and a civil rights crusader. The speech in itself and its context, being delivered in a church by a Muslim, was a turning point. Even though he was famous for his radical views, he toned his speech down to resonate with ordinary folks in saying that “We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to see each other as brothers and sisters. We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that’s necessary to get this problem solved ourselves” (Malcolm X).

Again, by using the analogies of a ballot and a bullet, Terril (35) says that the speaker shattered the conservative connection between prudence and decorum. This way, the speaker motivated his audience to act in ways that defy limitation in expressing their anger and opposition towards racial segregation and inequality. The same approach is applied by MLK, although his response was to an article published in a newspaper, it was directed at the general population in America both whites and blacks. MLK called upon the people to take up their moral responsibility of breaking unjust laws as humans and as Christians.

While MLK sought to reconcile people, Malcolm delivered a threat of armed uprising. As such, the pieces are similar and flowed with the calls for civil rights dominant in the 60’s. At the same time, MLK’s reinforced civil disobedience while Malcolm’s article motivated the audience to invent new ways of fighting segregation. Following the events of the decade and the course of the civil rights movement, the writings attained their objectives. Conclusion From the discussion above, it is evident that the issue of racial inequality and segregation were perceived differently over time.

In ‘Becky’, racism is widely accepted while in ‘The New Negro’ there is a change in attitude towards the concept. In ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ and ‘The Ballot or the Bullet,’ there is a drastic change in attitude towards racial segregation and even active involvement to end it. The discussion has portrayed that Malcolm X and MLK addressed a common topic among African American authors and relevant for their time. They applied different styles in their writings and literary techniques while sticking to conventional literary laws.

Letter From Birmingham Jail and The Ballot or the Bullet essay

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Letter From Birmingham Jail and The Ballot or the Bullet. (2021, Jun 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/letter-from-birmingham-jail-and-the-ballot-or-the-bullet/


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