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An Analysis of Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Categories: Free Essays

Letter from Birmingham Jail was written by Martin Luther King Jr. As he states in the title, in a Birmingham, Alabama jail. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed because he participated on a nonviolent protest of segregation in public places such as lunch counters and public restrooms.

During his jail time, Martin Luther King Jr. read a criticism about a protest made by a group of white ministers, accusing King of being an outsider, of using extreme measures that incite hatred and violence, that his demonstrations were “unwise and untimely” and also suggesting that the racial issues should be “properly pursued in the courts”.

In other words, they were suggesting that black people should not protest, but wait for the court system to work instead.

(Statement by Alabama Clergymen, 16 April 1963). Four days later, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter in response to the criticism seeking to lessen the aggression of white citizens toward African Americans and also revitalize the passion for nonviolent protests in the minds of the African American.

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His caution statement “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” it’s a good definition of how justice should be… In other words injustice shouldn’t be anywhere and people shouldn’t be separated by race or skin color.

Wherever there is a lack of justice there will always be abuse, neglect and oppression towards those unable and unwilling to defend themselves. Consequently, justice is fundamental to create a foundation for a better society. The following paragraphs analyze from a rhetorical standpoint the Letter from Birmingham Jail, by using the concepts of pathos, logos and ethos to determine the reason why Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter continues to be studied today.

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Martin Luther King Jr. established his credibility at the beginning and maintains it throughout the whole letter by addressing as “fellow clergymen”, he puts himself as equal. Then he establishes his right to be in Birmingham by identifying himself as a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an “affiliate” of his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had invited him to be in Birmingham, and he is there because he had organizational ties.

He establishes himself as a well-educated man with religious knowledge making references to both Jewish Old Testament prophets, the Apostle Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, the United States Supreme Court and St Augustine, and also provides credence to his stance by citing examples and opinions from them. Martin Luther King Jr’s emotional appeal begins with the very first sentence when he states, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail”, and continues as he describes the real life of a black person in the south.

Description that includes economic suppression, beating, lynching, and a routine that includes a constant fear that making a mistake might cost a life. His comments concerning children are profoundly moving where he says: …when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun town is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to clergymen, his emotional appeal probably wasn’t only to provoke sympathy or empathy from his detractors, but to cause shame as well, since he expresses how disappointed he is with them. He says that because they are religious people, and as people who have religious beliefs, they should be positioning themselves by the side of justice, instead of doing what they were doing because it was orderly. Martin Luther King Jr. appeals to reason and logic thorough the letter. Shows rational thought while describing the “steps” involved in a pacific protest.

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” He also describes real conditions and facts that happened in Birmingham like police brutality and bombings, as well as non-successful attempts to negotiate or to explain the reason why blacks could no longer be waiting as the white clergy had suggested.

Although he is always respectful in his tone remains courteous, he also questions the fundamental reasons behind the statements made by them, including the comment that blames the violence demonstrations that followed them are like blaming a person that have money for being robbed. Using fundamental arguments, one after another, pulling examples from history, Martin Luther King Jr. explains the difference between “unjust and just” laws, and also the reason why disobedience of an unjust law is not the same as disobedience of a just law.

He uses the “Boston Tea Party” as an example of “civil disobedience.” Some people find it kind of ironic when Martin Luther King Jr. refers to the American Revolution. About two hundred years before Martin Luther King Jr. was in the Birmingham jail, another man was equally persuasive when speaking on the part of oppressed people, his name was Tomas Jefferson. He wrote the Declaration of Independence saying that “all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” “all” including white and black men, at least in theory.

The Declaration defends that people should dissociate themselves from governments that refuse to allow equality. Today people might wonder how Thomas Jefferson would have answered Martin Luther King Jr’s letter. Even though the power of the message on the Declaration of Independence has inspired similar declarations around the world, it was not Martin Luther King Jr’s inspiration. His inspiration came from a lesser known, but equally powerful document called “Civil Disobedience written by David Henry Thoreau in 1849” while he was also in jail for protesting the Mexican American War.

Civil Disobedience not only inspired Martin Luther King Jr., but was also inspired Mohandas Gandhi (a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi) a well know Indian independence leader. Gandhi wrote a translated synopsis of Thoreau’s argument for Indian Opinion, credited Thoreau’s essay with being “the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America”, and wrote that “Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable to the Indians. Similar to the Declaration of Independence and Civil Disobedience, Letter from a Birmingham jail was translated into over forty languages and is inspiration for oppressed people around the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. used of the concepts of ethos, pathos and logos to write his Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of the reasons why the letter continues to be studied nowadays. Martin Luther King Jr. has a powerful emotional appeal, his credibility is solid and his reason is morally excellent. After reading his letter, many people, including myself are moved to take up this fight. One could easily imagine the study of Letter from Birmingham Jail continuing for as long as we are still seeking nonviolent means to seek freedom from oppression, justice over injustice.

Cite this page

An Analysis of Letter from a Birmingham Jail. (2016, May 16). Retrieved from

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