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Riley Jensen

Newport- English 102


Letter From Birmingham Jail Rhetorical Analysis

In Martin Luther Kings persuasive letter to his fellow clergymen, he justified the

reasoning behind his actions that lead to his incarceration. King masterfully wielded

weapons of rhetoric in place of traditional weapons during the nonviolent protest he lead

to end segregation. The four main components of his arsenal were his logical appeal,

his emotional appeal, his credibility, and the situation that presented itself. The most

effective was his emotional component because it gives the reader a chance to

empathize and understand the perspective of the African Americans who were forced to

live in constant fear.

King uses a logical argument to help persuade the clergymen of his motives.

Although many of the arguments made throughout the letter have sound logic behind

them, there is one in particular that is extremely effective. When King expresses that "It

was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. and assures, had I lived in

Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers, it puts the

civil rights movement in the same classification of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is

arguably the greatest injustice in human history and to compare the struggles of African

Americans to Jews gives the clergymen an abrupt wake up call at the severe injustice

they are supporting.

Kings most effective piece of rhetoric comes when he uses an appeal to

emotions. He uses distinct aspects of his own life when he articulates the struggles of,

when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: Daddy, why

do white people treat colored people so mean? The power in this statement comes in
Riley Jensen
Newport- English 102

the humanistic aspect because traditional roles in a family are something that most

Americans understand. When a father feels that he can not protect his five year old son,

it is alarming and calls for change. King uses this knowledge to beg the clergymen to

empathize with him as a fellow father.

King also uses his credibility as a well known civil rights activist and a respected

minister to his advantage. It is important for him to establish his authority early on in his

letter to avoid the misconception that he is a criminal as he was in jail at the time he

wrote the letter. He successfully builds his credibility in saying, "I have the honor of

serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization

operating in every southern state. This speaks well to his audience as they are all

respected heads of their churches. By stating his religious affiliations and involvements

early in the letter, he forms a connection with the reader that can make it easier to

persuade them due to the foot in the door phenomenon.

Kings letter is very effective due to the situation he finds himself in and the timing

in which it is delivered. A key aspect of his argument is when King brings up the point,

One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?

The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be

the last to advocate disobeying just laws. This is effective because of the situation King

finds himself in. He is in a jail cell after having broken the laws regarding protesting. It is

important for him to acknowledge that he broke these laws and give justification for why

he did so because it shows that he is willing to go to extreme lengths for his cause. He

later goes on to define just and unjust laws which further adds to the reasoning behind

his sentencing.
Riley Jensen
Newport- English 102

Another example of the situation being favorable for King is the hundreds of

years that African Americans were forced to suffer. At one point in his letter he exclaims,

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.

This time period is roughly 6 generations of Kings ancestors who have had to endure

the maltreatment and discrimination that he is fighting so desperately to expel from

society. This is a strong statement and forces the readers to reflect upon their own

family history. King also adds the idea that privileged groups seldom give up their

privileges voluntarily, causing further thought to be given to the loss of lives in this time

period due to slavery and segregation.

Although Kings argument is sound from all rhetorical aspects, the most effective

is his appeal to emotion. King convinces his audience of his point of view by speaking

on a matter that he is very passionate about and therefore can create a compelling

argument. He uses the family values that nearly all Americans hold dear in order to

plead his case. King was able to state his thoughts in a way so that readers would

empathize and understand his cause. It was an effective letter and a prime example of



In addition, I wished that the racist judge would not accept the notion that the

fight for African American freedoms is a time sensitive matter. I recently read a letter

sent by a civil rights supporter from Texas who is white. He said The majority of

Christians understand African Americans will gradually become more equal, but some

feel that you are in a rush. Christians have worked for 2,000 years and made slow,
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Newport- English 102

steady progress. Changing ideology is not an overnight process. This notion stems

from a poor understanding of time and the way in which it works sequentially. Time can

be favorable or unfavorable, depending on how one uses it. Sometimes, it seems that

those with poor intentions use it to their advantage better than those with beneficial

intentions. The issue at hand is not merely a result of a the bad people who are acting

out, but equally a result of the good people refusing to speak up. Changing the world is

not something that just happens, it is something that has to be labored over and fought

for. The best scenario for change is present one at hand, and it is crucial we take

advantage of it.