Redefining Structure: Social Stratification in MLK’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail”

Redefining Structure: Social Stratification in MLK’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. was an eloquent speaker and a powerful figure during the Civil Rights Movement. In “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” he uses the classical rhetoric to engage his audience and present his ideas clearly. This particular text was initiated due to the non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, which led to the arrest of many African-Americans, including King himself. Although this was not a spoken document, the letter was directed to several targeted audiences: first, the clergymen who wrote “A Call for Unity,” secondly, the “white moderate” (47), and finally, to black men and women across the nation who lacked the initial courage to fight for their rights. Dr. King establishes himself as an authoritative voice in the religious community who connects with his multiple audiences through the use of gruesome imagery and hardened logic. An essential part of his intent was to express his deep concern with his fellow clergymen, whom were not at all sympathetic to the movement, yet practiced the word of God.
Dr. King establishes himself as many things, most importantly as a non-violent, authoritative man of God in order to identify himself as an equal to the clergymen. His religious influence supports the assertion that he has “the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state” (40). In his response to the men who so graciously wrote “A Call for Unity,” Dr. King establishes himself as a man of the Bible, as they have also identified themselves as members of the Christian church. This grants him the opportunity to summon the power of the Lord/God to support his argument, stating that blacks “will win our freedom because the sacr...


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...th his people. He called upon the black man to remain calm and coherent, and to show restraint against his aggressive white oppressors. By publicizing the brutality in which most African-Americans in the southern states suffered, Dr. King was proficient in gaining support from the “white moderate.” With swaying this large population of the general public, the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and was thrown into the public eye of the nation. I expect that this letter was not blissfully received by the members of the clergy who were content with maintaining the current status quo, but created the tension needed to progress the Civil Rights movement forward.



Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Writing Public Lives. Eds. Christopher Minnix and Carol Nowotny-Young. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil Publishing, 2010. Pages 40-55. Print.

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