Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Importance in Taking Action Now

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On April 16th of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to respond to the eight caucasian clergymen in Alabama who called on him to end his nonviolent resistance policy. King was told to let the problems of integration be handled in the courts. By calling for peace and brotherhood, King attempts to soothe sides of this debate into supporting his position on the Civil Rights Movement during his imprisonment in Birmingham, Alabama. Throughout the letter, King is persuading his fellow clergymen that their wish for desegregation and the injustice that whites have imposed on the African American community. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. tries to balance the middle ground as he debates between two extreme choices. He argues that there is no proper time for a rise against an unjust society as his authority will always be questioned and extremism will appeal against emotion. Rhetorical Analysis Of Letter From Birmingham Jail shows how King prepares the readers to be open as to how his actions were justified in Birmingham. To succeed in his argument, King has to understand both of the sides the clergymen have stated in his letter.

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King first appeals to his own authority by quoting his opponents and by honoring his opponents ethos as well when he says, “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth…” (King, 1963, 263-264). King states that he hopes to answer his opponent’s statement via “patient and reasonable terms.” On one side, he recognizes those who believe “negotiation is a better path.” (266). However, King describes this argument as unable to produce change in the Civil Rights Movement. King does not hesitate to say it is more unfortunate the white power structure left the African American community at a loss. The white political leaders failed to engage in good faith negotiations. The African American community was left with no other alternatives than to start nonviolently protesting as promise were made to never be fulfilled. There are four steps in nonviolent campaigning, collection of facts to determine injustice, negotiation, self purification, and direct action. King mentions his representation “serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (264) with affiliates in Alabama, specifically the “Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.” (264) as well as the reasoning for the campaigning to show the community did not move irresponsibly into action, as it shows he is well educated about not only his own topics, but injustice happening in Alabama. King appeals to his ethos and to movement’s ethos by expressing how they “began a series of workshops on non-violence.” (264) This shows that they are not interested in maiming others, but rather just wanting their freedom and equality they deserve. Another appeal to ethos is how King “earnestly opposed violent tension”. (265) While King does compare this opposing argument to his own beliefs, he also outlines similarities between these two ideas, especially the need for nonviolent action. King, instead, produces his own support for “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (266) — a call for direct action that is not violent but still able to get it’s point across.

On the other hand, King recognizes the argument made by those who are “rabid segregationist” and condemns those who wish for anarchy in this country. By noting this argument and criticizing it in such a factual way, King tries to provide a convincing argument to those who are more moderate and unwilling to break laws to stimulate segregational change by relating to religion and law that has been altered. With these inputs, King calls to action those “real heroes” in the South to support his movement. King urges the audience to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954, the Brown versus Board of Education, outlawing segregation in public schools. King mentions how some ask “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” (268) He goes to explain that there is a difference between just and unjust laws to explain logically why civil disobedience should sometimes be implemented. “An unjust law is no law at all” is quoted with St. Augustine, but King makes sure to bring it up to mention he agrees with it. King, being a preacher himself but also using the audience’s Christianity to his advantage, mentions “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God, an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” (268) King also uses repetition quite often; he restates what he has said by changing the words but leaving the same meaning. He describes what a just law and an unjust law is. For example, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (268) King does this so that the reader can fully understand the importance of “non-violent direct action” (266) in order to gain the equality a human being deserves.

These clergymen were as religious as they could come, and King used this to his advantage as he was relating to God whom they put major emphasis on due to their religion. King goes on to mention “Segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound but it is morally wrong and sinful” (268) once again reiterating the means of religion in order to appeal to the clergymen directly. “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” (269) This is stating that man is further from God because of the awful sin of treating some of God’s children as less than human, as if they are not worthy to consider themselves worshippers of God.

King mentions the members of society who are at great fault are the ones afraid of being looked down upon by the church and being shunned out of the light but King wants to make clear civil disobedience is not new by providing religious references and the works of philosophy. Early Christians were “willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks” (271), Socrates practiced civil disobedience. Many, if not all, agreed Hitler was an awful person and he was doing evil deeds. King uses this to prove the brutalities that were happening were legal, but were morally incorrect as time went on, ultimately relating to his own situation being persuasive in his argument. “This is difference made legal...This is sameness made legal.” (269). The clergymen stated King and his protests must be condemned because they are precipitating violence but this cannot be logically assumed because it is comparable to “condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery” (276) or “like condemning Jesus because His unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to His will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion” (276). Providing these examples, King shows how it is illogical to say his acts of nonviolence cause violence because the opposing party chooses to hate King and his followers, and no one would blame a man being robbed or especially blame Jesus for being crucified.

Civil disobedience leads to seeing the importance in taking action now and waiting no longer. King evokes a sense of guilt and shame when addressing the white moderate, expressing that they should have understood how important this “nonviolent direct action” (266) was. King strongly appeals to ethos in expressing the cruelty toward the African American community from “when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” (267) and “when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters” (267). “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other state.” (267) This helps further express his need to be in Birmingham to fight against the racial inequality and injustice taking place. This appeals to the reader’s pathos because bombings are horrifying events that traumatize those involved for extended amounts of time, to be attacked by or see one of your dear loved ones attacked is even more horrifying. This should make the audience of clergymen as well as any other audience feel uneasy, with compassion and sorrow for what has been happening to their fellow human brothers and sisters regardless of the color of their skin.


  1. King, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. In J. C. Oates (Ed.) The best American essays of the century (pp. 263-279). Boston, MA: Mifflin.

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