On “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his thoughts and ideas are directly stated, well expressed, explained, and illustrated. King’s style of writing gives the reader a clear glimpse into the world with which he struggled and allows his letter to be powerfully effective.
In the introductory paragraph, King introduces his reason for writing the letter and details who the audience is to be. He explains that he rarely answers criticisms and gives his reasons for answering this particular one. This grabs the reader’s attention in the first three sentences of the letter and establishes the importance of the document, intriguing the reader to keep reading what becomes a gripping and moving letter.
During the course of King’s writing, one of his strong points is his ability to take the words of his oppressors, discredit them or explain why their ideas aren’t plausible, convey his ideas, and detail exactly why and how they will work. In the sixth paragraph, King rebukes those who “deplore the demonstrations that are currently taking place in Birmingham,” as they are only dealing with the effect and not recognizing the cause for the demonstrations, then clarifies that the white power left the Negro community no other choice. In the next paragraph, King spells out the four basic steps of any non-violent demonstration. Breaking it down even more, he gives an example of each step in the Birmingham situation. King gave the reader an easy to follow step by step account of a non-violent protest that let the reader understand the careful planning of each step.
An effective if not intended technique of King’s is his countless source of quotes from past respectable people who all said things that helped support his case and his examples of cases of other people rebelling against some situation of oppression. Among the quoted who all said something in the favor of justice are Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. To condone his label as an extremist, King listed other extremists: Jesus as an extremist of love, Amos an extremist of justice, Paul an extremist of the Gospel, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln, all highly respected people who gave everything for what they believed in. King uses this to help his cause be seen in the light of Jesus’ mission of Christianity and Abraham Lincoln’s quest for the end of slavery. King also presents other examples of those who struggled with oppression, such as the Jewish in Hitler’s Germany, the early Christians, and subjects of Nebuchhadnezzar. The use of examples of other people helps the reader see that King is not alone in his thoughts and ideas.
Eloquent and logical explanations are one of King’s strengths. In the twenty-second paragraph, King again uses logical appeal. He states that, “In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?” This statement is a direct logical appeal to the readers and by using the example of a man robbed of his money places the situation on the reader’s level rather than on the level of the Birmingham situation allowing the reader an easier connection to make.
King also uses moving and touching emotional appeal to make his point. In the thirteenth paragraph, King condemns the word “wait” and the sense of false hope it gave many people. In explaining why it is hard to wait he illustrates the nightmare they lived, seeing their parents lynched and siblings beaten, abused by the police, stricken with poverty, humiliated by the racial slurs, and with a wrenching heart stumbling to explain to your daughter why a new amusement park is closed to colored children. He paints a picture of the “depressing clouds of inferiority that begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards white people…” and the readers heart goes out to the sad eyed little girl who is too young to understand.
One last effective technique employed by King is the manner in which he begins the close of his letter. In paragraph thirty-six, King states, “But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about that outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently understood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” This statement unwaveringly rings loud and clear and still inspires hope in confidence in the reader this many years later. Closing with such a statement destroys all illusion of fear and ends the letter with a confidence that makes everything the audience read shine and remain imprinted on the mind.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a very effective letter. Through an intriguing opening, his ability to discredit his oppressor’s words and create detailed yet clear responses, effectively integrate the quotes and examples of others to help illustrate his points, his descriptive logical and emotional appeals and his strong, confident closing, King created a letter that is powerful enough to provoke thoughts inside any person that reads it.