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Rhetorical Analysis of the Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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Martin Luther King Jr. was truly an American hero who desperately fought for civil rights unlike anyone else in the 1960s. He was vastly different from many other leaders because he began a Civil Rights movement based on one single principle: peace. His nonviolent protests, influential marches, and inspiring speeches led America to a new period of reformation. King was inevitably arrested on April 12, 1963, for leading one of his peaceful marches. While restricted due to solitary confinement, he wrote a series of letters to his adversaries, the white clergymen, in response to a newspaper article that criticized his demonstrations. In these letters, he denounced their unjust and racist claims on his ideologies. He explains his theories on non-violent protests, which include processes of establishing legitimacy, negotiation, justification, and direct action. His letter is set with a harmonious, yet just, tone that is used to avoid aggression and conflict. 

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King effectively uses anaphora, ethos, and metaphors in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” analysis in order to firmly validate his ideas of honorable intentions in protesting and to denounce the racist criticism he received based on his beliefs. King’s use of anaphora ignites passion and emotion in his letter by allowing phrases to flow more smoothly, creating a sense of intelligence within King’s tone. He repeatedly uses the clause, “when you”, in one section of his letter. He describes cruel and absurd treatment, including “lynching…poverty…and inferiority” from a second person point of view in order to convince the clergymen of the raw injustice that minorities face and fight daily. This phrase builds and builds throughout the section to create a sense of impatience that describes the African American community’s “inner fears and outer resentments” toward racism. 

Through his repetition of examples, he makes the idea of waiting for justice seem completely ridiculous. Later on, King’s passionate use of anaphora is apparent as he repeats the phrase, “was not…?”. He manages to explain who influences him, why they influence him, and how he should be able to influence others similarly. He criticizes the clergymen’s namecalling of him by labeling considered heroes “extremists” in a positive light, just as he was labeled the same, but rather in a negative tone due to his skin color and cultural differences. He quotes each of his role models in order to establish the similarities between him and the “saviors” of earlier time periods. In fact, he is able to prove that the only real difference between him and his predecessors is their color of skin.

 The author’s use of rhetorical appeal to ethos demonstrates his credibility on the subject of racism and his ability to successfully prove his argument regarding his arrest due to his peaceful protest. King’s letter begins by describing his audience as “dear fellow clergymen”, manifesting himself to hold the same social status as these white men. He subtly, yet firmly, implies that while he may not be any greater than them, they are no greater than him either. 

Rather, they are equals, he suggests. He goes on to disprove that he is an “‘outsider’” according to their claims by stating his personal achievements, including his position as the “president of the Southern Christian Leadership” and his access to “eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South”. These accomplishments further prove that despite the difference in skin color, the credibility of his need for equal rights establishes that he is valid and trustworthy. In short, he is explaining that he is well-versed on the subject of injustice due to his extensive research towards it. He also illustrates how no matter how the clergymen attempt to discredit him, he is an American citizen, and thus should be treated as such with the same respect and equality as any white man.  

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