Rhetorical Devices in Letter from Birmingham Jail

Literary works have always formed a fundamental part of the society.
They have been used to shape the course of events, outline the ills that
the real world is grappling with, as well as give opinions of how a
better world can be created. Needless to say, different literary works
have had different levels of success, not only with the ideas that they
inspired but also with the popularity that they gave their authors.
While numerous literary works have been composed, none arguably comes as
more inspiring than Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from
Birmingham Jail”. Throughout this literary work, Dr. King made use of
rhetoric in an effort to persuade the readers, as well as come up with a
convincing argument. Indeed, it is evident that he effectively used
pathos, logos and ethos alongside other figures of speech in his attempt
to win over some clergymen that had challenged his fundamental right to
protest and branded him an extremist and outsider.
First, Dr. King makes numerous ethical appeals through relating his
mission to the authority of God. He uses the history of his family in
church to appeal to a higher authority and underline the knowledge of
the church and God. This is seen where he quotes his distinctive
position of being “the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of
preachers”. His quotation of these roots in the church underline his
authority in the knowledge of what is ethically and morally right. On
the same note, he underlines his authority and credibility by comparing
his activism movement and extremist views with those of the varied
authoritative figures in history. For example, he calls Jesus an
extremist of love, Amos an extremist for justice, and Paul an extremist
of the Christian gospel (King 8). On the same note, he quotes the words
of Thomas Jefferson that “all men are created equal”, as well as
Abraham Lincoln’s words that the nation would not exist as “half
slave and half free” (King 8). These ideals of equality and love from
the varied authoritative figures are used to support the cause for which
he is fighting. This is also seen where he compares the condemnation he
received to the condemnation of a robbed man for precipitating evil
through having money, or even condemning Jesus and Socrates for
promoting evil because of standing against it. The use of these
authoritative figures puts his cause on a significantly higher level.
In addition, Dr. King makes use pathos to appeal to the emotions of the
readers in judging his actions. Indeed, Dr. King creates an atmosphere
of desperation to compel the reader to support him and his cause merely
on the basis of sympathy. He outlines the varied instances where African
Americans have been subjected to brutality, for instance, the
“unsolved bombings of negro homes and churches (King 2)”, “ugly
and inhuman treatment of negroes in the city jail”, “long years of
oppression” and being “drained of self respect and a sense of
sombodiness” (King, 7). These instances are used in building feelings
of sympathy for himself, as well as the individuals that share the same
cause through the creation of an image of being an underdog that is
being bullied and brutalized by the considerably bigger villain that is
the government and police that have rejected them (Jonathan 15). This
strategy is bound to prove successful, especially considering that the
society usually roots for individuals that are considered underdog. Even
more emotionally appealing is the description of the pain of seeing
one’s relatives in poverty, drowned or even lynched. He explains the
pain that an individual would feel explaining to his daughter why she
cannot go to an amusement park advertised lately as tears well up in her
eyes (King 4). The strength of this strategy lies in the fact that
people have extremely strong emotional ties to their families, in which
case they would be angry at the thought of anyone hurting them, thereby
making it easy to obtain sympathy (McCarthy 22).
In addition, Dr. King outlines a number of fairly logical reasons as to
why his is a cause worth fighting for. He explains his reason for
supporting the protests as the unfair and violent treatment that is
meted on blacks, as well as the injustices that they endure on a daily
basis. Of particular note is the sentence where he cautions his readers
against forgetting that all actions and atrocities that were committed
by Adolf Hitler in Germany were considered legal, while the actions of
the Hungarian freedom fighters in Hungary were considered illegal (King
5). This is complemented by the explanation that he broke the laws that,
in his opinion, were unjust and opined that others should follow laws as
long as they considered them just (Rieder 16). This appeals to the
reasoning faculties of individuals especially considering that every
person knows that the actions of Hitler were morally wrong while saving
Jews would have been morally upright. This underlined the fact that it
is preferable to disobey an unjust law than follow it.
On the same note, Dr. King used repetition to emphasize on the
necessity of the cause for which he was fighting. In paragraph 12, Dr.
King repeats the term “when” and outlines the varied injustices that
blacks face. These include failure to be admitted to motels, undergoing
bad treatment from whites, or even when one has to render explanations
to his sons and daughters why they cannot be allowed in certain places,
or when they are derogatorily called “niggers” (King 4). These
repetitions are used in not only emphasizing the severity of the
situation for the blacks but also the necessity of his cause.
Lastly, Dr. King used metaphors to draw a mental picture of the current
situation and how he envisions the future. As he signs out, he hopes
that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice” will be gone and the
“deep fog of misunderstanding” lifted from the fear-drenched society
so as to allow the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood” to shine
on the nation (King 12). These metaphors are aimed at outlining the
gloomy nature of the society in which he lives and the brilliance of the
future for which he fights, thereby underlining the worth of the cause
and calling for support for it.
In conclusion, Dr. King makes effective use of pathos logos and ethos
alongside other features of speech in his literary piece to emphasize
the necessity of the cause. He underlines his roots in church and
compares his works with those of recognized historical figures to
underline his authority in speaking of the things he did. In addition,
he appeals to the emotions of readers by drawing examples of family
situations, which he knows every person would be protective of. His
appeal to logic comes in the form of questioning the moral authority of
Adolf Hitler, thereby underlining the fact that laws should only be
obeyed as long as they are just. On the same note, his repetition of the
word “when” places emphasis on the injustices with which blacks
grapple, thereby underlining the necessity of his cause.
Works cited
McCarthy, Anna. The Citizen Machine: Governing by Television in 1950s
America, New York: The New Press, 2010, Print
Jonathan, Bass. S. Blessed are the peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr.,
eight white religious leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 2001, Print,
Rieder, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.`s Letter
from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. New York,
NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Print
King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail. African Studies
Center, 1963. Web retrieved from HYPERLINK
“http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html”
http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Vail, Mark Thomas. Realms of Reception: The Rhetorical Response to Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.`s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Memphis:
Memphis State University, 2008, print
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