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A Rhetorical Analysis of LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL, by Martin Luther King,


In his letter to his fellow clergymen from the confines of his prison cell, Martin Luther King,

Jr. attempts to answer their criticism regarding his, an outsiders presence in Birmingham. He

also tries to patiently put forth his explanation as to why the black community was preparing

to launch a non-violent campaign against the white community in their quest for racial justice

in the 1960s. Throughout the essay, King tries to persuade the clergymen to see the

rationality of his and the Negro communitys actions against racial injustice by clever usage

of logos, ethos & pathos. In his conclusion, King ends his letter on a positive and optimistic

note, hoping for a near future full of love with no room for racial prejudice. Kings use of

touching examples and thought provoking questions give his case a very strong foundation by

forcing his audience to put themselves in a Negros shoes and see that the protests are just

and timely.

In his opening, King addresses the clergymens opposition to outsiders

coming in(165). He appeals to their intrinsic ethos by introducing himself as the president of

the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with its operations in all southern states. He

appeals to their logic by talking about how he was invited to Birmingham to take part in non-

violent action if & when needed, substantiating the reason for his presence there. He talks

about his awareness of the interrelatedness between all the states and communities within the

country, and the butterfly effect that injustice in one place can have on others. Also, he talks

about how the unfair power structure of the white community had pushed the Negroes to take

up non-violent protests as their last resort after having waiting for more than three centuries

for justice to be served.

In Paragraph 32, King talks about how the World is in dire need of extremists who will stand

up for a just cause. He wishes that more members of the group in power saw the need for

urgent and strong action in support of the oppressed. He keeps his white audience in mind

and tries to gather their support by giving them examples of well renowned white writers and

journalists like Ralph McGill & Lillian Smith who were already on board, suffering police

brutality and abuse and yet rooting for the cause of the black community. By talking about

well renowned people, King ensured that hed appeal to his audiences logic and make them

wonder about the right choice.

In Paragraph 33, King talks about how greatly disappointed he is with the white church and

makes them question themselves and their actions. He cleverly banters back and forth by

appealing to the clergymens logics and their ethos. After stating his disappointment, King

quickly states his appreciation for the stands that each of the clergymen had taken on the

issue of racial prejudice. He gives them credit and commends them for their good deeds,

making sure he is voicing his appreciation for them and feeding their ego. Immediately after

doing that, King pulls back on his appreciation, taking them into a state of mind where they

are questioning their actions.

King starts attacking their guilt by starting off about the Montgomery bus

strike where hed hoped for support from the church; its priests, ministers & rabbis, only to

be let down by their silence and outright opposition. He talks about how the church remained

silent behind their stained glass windows, questioning their courage to do the right thing. In

Para 36, he talks about how hed put the Montgomery incident in the past hoping for the

churchs support in Birmingham, only to be let down again. By doing this, King is applying

constant ethical pressure, forcing the clergymen to question their actions once again. In Para

37, he attacks their guilt for the third time, questioning why the church admonished its
worshippers to comply with desegregation only because it was the law and not because it was

the right thing to do.

In Para 38, King reiterates his disappointment by asking a bunch of questions related to the

churches in the south and their neutral stance when it came to the equality of their black

brothers and sisters. He tells the clergymen about how these questions haunt him and make

him cry, and yet his love for the church remains the same. The strongest emotion he employs

in his writing comes into play when he talks about how he sees the church as the body of

Christ in Para 39, but how the silence and heretic stance of the church in social issues has

scarred the body of Christ for him.

In Para 40, he draws a contrast between the past and the present church by pointing out to the

clergymen that the churches in the past were much stronger and that they suffered for social

causes like infanticide and gladiatorial contests, intimidating towns they passed through with

spiritual intoxication even though their numbers were small. On the other hand, he talks about

how the present churches stay silent or even sanction immoral things, even though they have

strength in numbers.

In Para 4, King strikes fear in the clergymen by stating how the church might lose its loyal

worshippers if it didnt walk in the courageous and sacrificial footsteps of churches in the


Immediately after his fine attempt at striking fear in the clergymens hearts, in Para 43 he

talks about few priests in the South who had voiced their support for the black community,

breaking off from their congregations, walking hand in hand with the oppressed for their

cause. After this attack, the clergymen are bound to have a guilty conscience seeing other

priests stand up for a moral cause.

In addition to that, in Para 45, King appeals to the clergymens emotions by directing

questions at them, probably trying to make them ask themselves if they would have

commended the police for maintaining order if they had seen the two faced nature of the

cops, conducting themselves non-violently in public but inhumanely towards Negroes inside

prisons. King then states his opposition towards the clergymens commendation of the

Birmingham police.

In his closing passages, King wishes that the church had commended the black community

for their perseverance and discipline in the face of provocation for centuries, leaving the

clergymen guilty all over again. King then concludes politely, like always, stating that the

black community will thrive no matter what, and that one day he would meet them, as a

fellow clergyman and a Christian brother, signing off on a note of love.

By being polite throughout the letter, forcing his audience to stand in a black mans shoes,

and by forcing them to reflect on their actions, King succeeds in justifying that his non-

violent protests are just & timely.