In King’s essay, “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, King brilliantly employs the use of several rhetorical strategies that are pivotal in successfully influencing critics of his philosophical views on civil disobedience. King’s eloquent appeal to the logical, emotional, and most notably, moral and spiritual side of his audience, serves to make “Letter From Birmingham Jail” one of the most moving and persuasive literary pieces of the 20th century.
In Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963, King's campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and segregated hiring practices drew nationwide attention when police turned attacks dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators. King was jailed along with a large number of his supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. When white clergy, strongly opposed to Kings position on nonviolent passive resistance, issued a statement urging the blacks not to support the demonstrations, King penned a letter of remarkable eloquence which spelled out his philosophy of nonviolence disobedience. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, King expresses his extreme disappointment over the criticism of his leadership by Alabama clergymen, his understanding of why oppressed people must resist their oppression, and his deep faith in the fundamental decency of all Americans.
In “Letter From Birmingham Jail” King demonstrates exceptional literary prowess through his mastery of several rhetorical strategies to persuade. King’s strategy to influence his audience in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is that of a three-pronged approach. In an attempt to sway his fellow clergymen King argues his position with passion and conviction as he respectfully appeals to the logical, emotional and spiritual psyche of his critics.
Kings first attempt to reach his reader is through his appeal to their logic or reasoning. He does this by presenting a direct relationship between the reasoning for his position against segregation and argument for it’s resulting actions of civil disobedience by those oppressed by it. This approach is most evident when King gives the reasoning for his statement, "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate...
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...l, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid" (160). Petitioning to the readers moral conscience King beliefs that righteous minded individuals are more apt to intervene against oppression if asked to question their own ethics.
Through his references to history, his elegant prose, and his thoughtful analysis of the condition of Blacks, his essay reveals a writer of extraordinary skill and intellect. His rhetorical approach in detailing the disparity of the oppressed, courageous, non-violent people of his era proves that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is without question, one of most important documents of the civil rights movement. King’s ability to communicate the plight of the disenfranchised of American society helped galvanize a generation and change the social fabric of an entire nation.
King Jr., Martin L. “Letter From Birmingham Jail”. A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus.
Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 1998. 153-69
Zepp, Ira G., Jr. The Social Vision of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1989. 123-47
Walton, Hanes Jr. The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Greenwood Press, 1971
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