Martin Luther King Jr.'s Plea to the Clergy in Letter from Birmingham Jail - a Critique

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King’s Plea to the Clergy

Gaining equal rights for all is not an easy task. In the process, advocates face challenges and criticisms. One major advocate for the equal rights for all was Martin Luther King Jr. While fighting for equal rights for the African American people, Martin Luther King Jr. faced many challenges and dealt with many criticisms. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King employs many rhetorical strategies such as repetition of words and phrases, religious examples, and allusion while responding to the criticisms of protests from eight clergymen.

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King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is the answer to the clergymen’s criticism of King and his actions. To begin the letter, King pens why he is in Birmingham and more importantly, why he is in jail. King then states that he rarely responds to criticisms of his work and ideas. He explains that if he did so, he would never many any progress on any constructive work. Moving on, King responds to the criticism of being an outsider. He declares that he is not an outsider because of his involvement in multiple agencies throughout the South and he is only in Birmingham because he was invited there. He compares his actions to those of the apostles spreading the Gospel in Roman times in hopes to get the clergymen to understand. Continuing on, he outlined the four steps to his campaigns and how these steps are nonviolent. King then states that the clergymen are correct in their criticism and uses them as support for his argument. Next, King explains the difference between two types of laws: just and unjust. Explaining his campaign’s actions, King conveys that they do not break all laws, only the unjust laws that disobey the moral law. He then uses sets of historical and biblical questions and quote answers to further his point of justifying how the actions are not extreme. King the dives into using the Church as a way to reconnect and meet the challenges of time. King ends hoping that this letter will reach the clergymen in good faith and the racism will end, establishing unity among the people.

One rhetorical strategy King uses is repetition of words and phrases throughout his letter to the clergyman to advocate for equal rights for the African American people. This strategy is effective in creating emotions within the readers of the letter. The first example of this can be seen when King repeats phrasing beginning with “when you” (47). It evokes feeling of shock and disbelief of how harshly African American people were treated and the sadness it caused those on the receiving end. For example, King talks about having to tell black children that are not allow to go to amusement park just because of the color of the skin and thinking about the heartbreak of that child (47). Moving on, King continuously uses the words “just” and “unjust” in reference to the laws that his followers obey and break. King defines an unjust law as “code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (48). Through defining an unjust law, King gives the reasoning for breaking this type of law. Without using “unjust” and “just” throughout the paragraph, it would be impossible for one to understand what King is writing about. Also, repeating these words drive home King’s point of which law they obey and which type of law they break. Another example of the reiteration in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” can be seen in the paragraph where King questions his readers on known extremist. King repeatedly askes “Was not… an extremist” many times with in the paragraph (53). This causes the readers to think about the various examples King states. These examples give the readers a feeling of knowing that the actions of King are not truly one an extremist. King’s repetition in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” presents a successful rhetorical strategy that creates various feelings in his readers in attempts to gain support for his campaign for equal rights.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King uses religious examples as a strategy to get the clergy to support his campaign. The use of Biblical examples in the letter is directed towards the clergymen as men of faith in hopes to strike a chord with them. To begin, King compares his actions to the apostles spreading the Gospel of Christ beyond their respective home towns. King claims he is carrying the “gospel of freedom” outside his hometown (44). This is an attempt to strike a common chord with the clergymen because they are also called to spread the Gospel. In addition to the apostles. King also employs this strategy when he addresses as them as fellow clergymen, as King is also a preacher and a part of southern Christian Leadership Conference (43). Attempting to get the clergymen to give support, King tries to unite their front under the fact they all believe in the same God. King hopes that the letter will reach the clergymen in good faith (59). This example furthers his attempts to get the clergy to support King and his campaign because the eight men are of the same God and King wants them to realize this. Lastly, King uses the religious example of the Church to appeal his campaign to the clergymen. King states that the modern church needs to get back to the spirit that was possessed by the earlier Church. He hopes that the entire Church will step up to defend this important issue of equal rights (57). Examples of the Church are used by King to get the support that is needed for the success of his campaign because the clergymen are the leaders of the Church and it would be up to these men to bring about change within the Church. Religious examples are an effective rhetorical strategy in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Lastly, King uses the strategy of allusion in his letter to help his readers gain a clear understanding for his actions. First, King uses the example of Saint Paul responding to Macedonia’s call for help (44). King is responding to the call of help from the African American people in their fight for rights. To expand, alluding to this event makes it easier for the clergy and other readers to see why King is carrying out his campaign because this example again pulls on the faith of the clergymen. Second, King alludes to the Hungarian Freedom Fighter’s action in Hungary. King states that the action carried out by these people, though helpful, was illegal (50). This is similar to his actions. King’s actions might be seen as illegal and law-breaking, but they are attempts to help the people. This example gives a historical support to his actions and in a way, King attempts for understanding. Lastly, King alludes to King and the Holocaust. Everything that Hitler did to the Jews and other minorities that were not a part of his “perfect race” was surprisingly legal. King further states that if he would have been in Germany at the time of the Holocaust, he would have tried to help, though it was illegal (50). Furthermore, this is like what King was attempting to carry out in the United States. He was sometimes doing illegal things to carry out his plan for equal rights for all people. The three examples of allusion used by King is a strategy to make it easier for his readers to understand his campaign.

King uses several rhetorical strategies throughout his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as he responds the criticism of the eight clergymen. His strategies of repeating certain words and phrases, biblical and religious support, and allusion to history and religion helped King respond in his letter. Though the fight for equal civil rights was not an easy feat, King managed to be successful. He faced obstacles but nothing stopped him from achieving his goal.

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