Letter from Birmingham Jail

Letterfrom Birmingham Jail

The contains both a convincing defense ofnonviolent civil rights protest and a rallying imploration to endsocial discrimination. Marin Luther Jr. uses a set of literarydevices in a highly moving and emotional message explaining the evilsof social segregation and social discrimination pervasive in Americansociety.

Whilethe external structural of the Letter is written in a point-by-pointmanner, the rhetorical text also develops recurring themes images,allusions, parallelism, metaphors, anaphors, images, repeated ideasand analogy that navigate through the linear order ofcounterarguments. These literary devices symbolize King as a changeagent who represents the values of the white moderate audience. Healso acts with respect and restraint even as the struggle to reformracial injustices becomes tough.


Throughoutthe letter, King maintains restraint in the choice of words heemploys to respond to his critics. The clergymen called Kingextremist he responds not with a rage of anger but disappointment.Throughout the text, this kind of verbal control repeats itself. Heregisters disappointment with the white moderate for their inactionwithout using a language of accusation. When the clergymen call hisdemonstrations unwise, and timely, King reminds them the Negroes aregrowing impatient in having We have waited for more than 340 yearsfor our constitutional and God-given rights” (120). “Perhaps iteasy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregationto say, ‘Wait.`&quot But when you have seen vicious mobslynch your mothers and fathers, at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim when you have seen hate-filled,&quot (88).


Anaphorais one of the literary devices employed by Luther Jr. to good effect.Anaphora simply means a repetition of key phrases and words. Whendefending nonviolent demonstrations, King writes &quotbecause theyprecipitate violence&quot (Para 25) condemning them is like justcondemning the victim of theft because she possesses money. In thiscontext, Martin Luther starts three sentences with the key phrase,&quotIsn`t like condemning ….&quot Luther uses sentence structureand words to carry his argument forward effectively. Each sentencecontains distinct, yet identical dictions that validate King`sargument. The use of anaphora also appears once more in paragraph 24and 26. King uses &quotI had hoped,&quot &quotI had also hope&quotphrases to unify the two paragraphs whose theme is white moderate`sdisappointment. King uses the keyword &quothoped to register hisdisappointment of the response coming from people he considered to behis closest allies and has no hope of counting on their support. Kinghas effectively used this rhetoric device to encourage his allies torenew or revamp their effort for the sake of the African Americancause.

Kinguses anaphor to show the kind of treatment the Negroes are subjectedto. King writes: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch yourmothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers atwhim when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and evenkill your black brothers and sisters when you see the vast majorityof your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cageof poverty in the midst of an affluent society when you suddenlyfind your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek toexplain to your six-year-old daughter why she can`t go to the publicamusement park that has just been advertised on television……….”(186).

Inthe above long sentence, King repeatedly uses “When you have,”when you see,” and “And see” to share his strong emotions. Thesentence is very detailed and gives vivid examples of the types ofracial discrimination he experienced and witnessed as a Negro.Despite these strong emotions, King had to restrain his emotions tokeep the civil rights movement non-violent. King emphasizes the word“you’ in one way of putting the reader in the shoes of theNegroes

Kinguses metaphor to turn an abstract notion into a concrete idea. Heuses the metaphor &quotdangerously structured dams&quot to explainthe abstract notion of the failure of law and order to bring justice(Para 24). King also equates the conflict caused by racialsegregation and injustice to the &quotboil&quot which cannot becured as much as it continues to be covered up. He writes “damsthat block the flow of progress are like a boil” (262). King arguesthat the boil must be left open for the air and light (nationalopinion and conscience) to heal it. Other metaphors used by Kinginclude the “disease of segregation,” “cup of endurance”,“abyss of injustice and depressing clouds of inferiority”. King’sdaughter feels when she cannot go somewhere during to her black skincolor. This metaphorical language serves as powerful literaryelements in helping the audience equate abstract concepts with visualreference.


Asa church minister, Martin king was conversant with the Bible and usedbiblical allusions to good effect. The rhythm of King’s rhetoric isno different from that of a pastor. In the letter, Martin King likensthe persecutions facing him for his role in the civil rights socialmovement to the persecutions early apostles faced as they laboredtirelessly to preach the gospel of Christ.

Allusionmakes indirect reference to an idea, place or person that carriesliterary importance. Because King is responding to clergymen’scriticism, he employs references to the religious scholars and theBible to prove his case. King uses biblical allusions throughout theletter so as to provide examples of biblical apostles and reverentialmen who did works the same way as King himself. These apostlesjustify the actions of King and also give him a credibility which ishinged on infallible standard. He borrows inspiration from biblicalheroes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who snubbed Nebuchadnezzar`slaws. King supports non-violent demonstrations because &quotJesuswas an extremist for love. King`s biblical allusions focus onnonviolence, love, and equality of men. These allusions parallel theintentions and purpose of his message.

Kingwrites “just as …..the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsusand carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of theGreco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedombeyond my own home. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to theMacedonian call for aid&quot (Para 4). King allude Paul toeffectively share his desires and interests in spreading freedom asthe apostle Paul did, spreading freedom beyond Birmingham to endracial segregation. He sees no problem in responding to the “callto aid” by the Negro community by preaching the gospel ofnonviolence. He is able to connect with the clergymen by bringing incommon ground they both share (biblical texts). King defends the needto respond to the call to find an answer to racial segregation anddiscrimination in Birmingham and the country at large.

Kingalso claims &quotA just law is a man-made code that squares with themoral law, or the law of God&quot (182). By making alluding theBible, King is able to connect to his cause and purpose to defend theBlacks. He is speaking out about the existence of unjust laws thatdiscriminate and oppress the Blacks. King believes there should bejust laws in America like the biblical laws. King also says “Iwould agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all”(182). King uses this allusion to help relate present events withreligious and historical figures.

Inaddition to using biblical allusions, Kings uses historical figuresto vindicate and justify his actions. The letter is filled withreferences to respectable figures like Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, PaulTillich, Martin Luther Snr., T. S. Elliot, Thomas Jefferson, AbrahamLincoln and John Bunyan.

Kingemploys deductive reasoning approach to responding to criticism bythe clergymen and to defend his activism. He responds to the claimsleveled against by applying the general principles to draw hisconclusions. The clergymen question King’s participation in theBirmingham demonstrations, yet he is an outside. King replies &quotI,along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invitedhere. I am here because I have organizational ties here . . . I am inBirmingham because injustice is here” (182). He goes ahead toprovide evidence. To start with, King is the president of SouthernChristian Leadership Conference. Furthermore, King had the invitationof the affiliate organization (the Alabama Christian Movement forHuman Rights) (Para 10). King is also in Birmingham because ofinjustice that exists here. He cannot afford to sit idly withoutshowing concern about the injustice done in Birmingham. He alsorecognizes “the interrelatedness of all countries andstates….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Weare caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a singlegarment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects allindirectly”(85). With all evidence, King does not qualify to beconsidered an outsider, because his presence is appropriate.


Thispaper has effectively examined the choice of language, rhetoricalstrategies and literary devices King used to convey his message.Throughout the letter, King has put into good effect various literaryelements that make the letter more appealing to the readers.


KingJr., Martin Luther. Letterfrom Birmingham Jail: Why we can’t wait. Accessedon November 1, 2016 fromwww.kingpapers. org