Civil Rights Movement: Letter From Birmingham Jail

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On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham Alabama for parading without a permit. A few days after his arrest a letter written by local religious leaders was smuggled into his cell. The letter criticized King and the local civil rights campaign. King then began to draft an open letter to these clergymen that addressed their concerns. Martin Luther King Junior’s letter from Birmingham jail is an effective piece because it utilizes refutation, historical allusion, and appeals to religion.

King’s use of refutation is one of the earliest techniques that is preset in King’s letter. He uses it in response to the claim that he is an outsider in stating, “I am here because I have organizational ties here.” (King par. 2). King uses this technique not only to negate the arguments being used against him; he also utilizes the opportunity to build his credibility as well. He continues to mention that the movement is nonviolent, and in one of these refutations, he establishes the idea that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (King par. 4). This claim solidifies his argument for why he is in Birmingham, and it condemns the criticisms claiming that King should have stayed in Atlanta.

King’s historical allusions form a significant part of his rhetoric. This tactic doesn’t only utilizes pathos; it makes use of ethos as well because King’s credibility as an author is enhanced by the knowledge that he did not have access to any outside sources when writing. Many tactics utilized by protesters in the civil rights movement were illegal at the time, and this led to the perception of protestors as anarchistic. By calling upon heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson when arguing his case King displays that he cares about the principles that America was founded on. King stresses the difference between morality and legality with an allusion to the holocaust, “everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’” (King par.22). It is important to note that King’s letter was written a mere two decades after the holocaust, so in summoning forth its memory he is invoking more intense emotion from his audience than the emotion we feel today. This intense emotional correlation doesn’t just establish that King is on the right side of history; it makes his argument impossible to refute.

The most notable technique that King uses is a biblical allusion. Because King is writing to religious leaders, this was his best chance to persuade them. He first utilizes the technique with, “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. … so am I compelled” (King par.3). King utilizes this technique to generate emotional appeal as well as build his credibility. In comparing himself to these biblical heroes King is establishing that he is also a person of good moral character. Later when King is accused of being an extremist he responds, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love,” (King par. 31). King utilizes the intense emotional weight that Jesus commands to destroy the negative connotations that being an extremist would usually come with. This not only builds his credibility through his comparison with Christ, but it also lessens the weight of the criticism that he is an extremist.

By utilizing the techniques of refutation, appeals to patriotism, and religious appeals, King wrote one of the most notable pieces of the civil rights movement. On April 12, 1963, King wrote in the margins of a newspaper that he had been given, and slowly approximately 7,000 words were delivered from Birmingham jail. From scraps of paper, King’s letter was pieced together and given to the world in June of 1963.  

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