Letter from Birmingham Jail Analysis

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Over the course of Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), the author, Martin Luther King Jr., makes extended allusions to multiple philosophers, among them Aquinas and Socrates. His comparison would seem to indicate that he shares an affinity with them. However, the clarity with which he makes his arguments and the dedication to a single premise strikes most strongly of Kant. Just as Kant’s magnum opus, Critique of Pure Reason, attempted to completely upend a previously accepted mode of thought, so also was King’s work devoted to a single objective: the protection of civil disobedience as a form of protest such that the Civil Rights Movement could continue in uncompromised form. Despite this singularity of purpose, the complexity of the situation meant that a more nuanced response to the statement A Call for Unity as published by eight Alabama Clergymen was necessary. In this way, King’s letter in fact served a fourfold purpose: to establish himself as a legitimate authority in the eyes of his audience, to show the trials of the black in America, to justify his cause, and to argue the necessity of immediate action.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter, written to the Clergymen from Birmingham Prison, he uses the rhetorical appeal of ethos to establish his credibility on the subject of racial discrimination and injustice. He starts off the letter with “My Dear Fellow Clergymen”. By him saying this, he is putting himself on the same “level” as the clergymen, sending the message that he is no less than them and they are no better than him. He then goes on to say, “I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. He is telling them that he has credibility on the matt...

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...is course of action. King also alludes to the examples from many philosophers and saints, including Socrates and Aquinus. The overall urgency and call for action in the letter is emphasised by his strong appeals to pathos. His imagery, personal experiences, and appeals to ethos and logos throughout make a strong, well rounded argument. He effectively demonstrates the impact of the trials the African American people have gone through and proves that what they are fighting for is a just cause on both legal and moral grounds. By inspiring sympathy through strong emotional appeals, King brings hope for positive change – that the white clergymen reading his letter will begin to understand the overlying problem and work for change. That is the ultimate goal – to bring about a better world for those under persecution and create an equal, just future for America as a whole.
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