On April 12, 1963, a letter, "A Call For Unity," was written by eight clergymen from Alabama. All these men were white, and while their letter acknowledged the social injustices in the United States, they believed that these movements for civil rights should only be fought in the courtroom and not in the public areas of Birmingham. This letter was published in the local newspaper and blamed protests for the social and racial friction in the city.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned for breaking a court injunction while leading a nonviolent direct-action protest program against segregation. While imprisoned, King wrote an open response to this letter. This letter was addressed to his fellow clergymen, but he wanted the entire world to read it. King breaks his letter into three major parts: why he was in Birmingham, why he believed change must take place immediately, and what he planned to do to help bring about this change. King believed that without direct action, civil rights could never be fully achieved. He felt the African American people could no longer calmly sit and wait for their rights to be granted; they would have to work for them.
King used a variety of literary devices in his letter, proving his intelligence and making a sound argument. King uses strong pathos, ethos, and logos to try to convince his fellow clergymen in Birmingham and throughout the entire world why civil rights should be granted to African Americans and segregation should end. King's strong use of logic and appeal to emotion are extremely effective, helping the fellow clergymen to see his point of view; however, the allusions that King uses are often superfluous and to such highly-respected historical figures that he comes off as pretentious, using their authority and status to elevate his own.
His use of logos helps his argument to be strong and irrefutable. He states facts that can not be argued; they are accepted by all to be true. He uses this technique effectively while explaining the difference between a just and unjust law. King states,
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made equal. (161-162)
If a majority does not follow a law, but imposes this law on a minority, it would be difficult to argue that this is a fair rule. A just law must be followed by all members of a country, majority or minority. King's argument is also weakened in this section when he quotes St. Augustine saying, "I would agree with St. Augustine that â€˜an unjust law is no law at all'" (161). This quotation seems irrelevant, since King has already explained how he feels about unjust laws. King mentions unfair methods that were being used to stop African Americans from voting in public elections. The United States legal system is set up on the basis of representative democracy, in which the people of a country elect officials and by default, choose who makes the laws. If a majority of the population is not allowed to take democratic action, then the United States legal system is failing its goal. He states,
Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? (162)
King appeals to the logical side of the clergymen again when he recounts an anecdote stating that the Christian Church was most powerful at the time when its members were being persecuted for their beliefs. These Christians traveled across countries spreading their message and changing the mores of societies wherever they went. They were "disturbers of the peace" but they knew they were called to obey God and not man (King 169). King compares this strong centralized church to the church of 1963. He calls the contemporary church a "weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound" (King 169). The church has lost its meaning and was only a place where people went out of habit instead of to offer worship and work to help others by spreading the message of God. King uses shorter sentences here than in the more powerful, dramatic parts of his text. Instead of being overtly emotional, he appeals to the vocation of his audience.
An example of King's powerful use of emotion is in the long and complex sentence he uses to relate the emotion felt by African Americans waiting for Constitutional rights. It states,
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and father at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society, when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "Nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait (King 160-161).
He understood that people who have never experienced segregation might not be able to fully put themselves in the position to make a fair decision, so he tried to describe the emotions. He describes seeing police officers, people who are supposed to uphold the law killing African Americans or failing to enforce order when mobs make it their "duty" to lynch an innocent mother or friend because of their skin color. He uses alliteration as in "your tongue twisted and your speech stammering" in describing the shame he felt as a father having to tell his six-year-old daughter that she was "not good enough" to go to the segregated amusement park, Funtown.
This use of alliteration helps the reader to focus on the words and imagine a clearer mental image. Alliteration makes a sentence easier to remember and leaves a more lasting effect on a reader. King uses pathos when he brings his children into his testimony. He attempts to drive shame into the hearts of the fellow clergymen and the society at large who were his audience. Having all these examples in one sentence allows King to imitate the process of waiting. Each semi-colon could have begun a new sentence, but instead King decides not to break the sentence up, making it long and painful, much like the wait for Constitutional rights was for African Americans.
King combines raw emotion with eloquent speech. He uses a large and complex vocabulary that shows his intelligence while keeping the emotional descriptions clear and easy to relate to. He remains polite, ending the paragraph by saying, "I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience" (King 172). The terminology King chooses to make points about segregation and civil rights make a subtle point. King refers to African Americans as "Negroes" when he speaks of them as his equals, "colored people" when quoting his five year old son, and "nigger" when quoting those who address him with a lack of respect. The variation of these synonyms helps to decode the different connotations that these words hold; however, King does not tell the connotations, he shows examples and lets readers make their own inferences. King's fellow clergymen were his equal in every aspect except skin color, and appeals to emotion allow King to help the clergymen put themselves in his shoes by using extremely descriptive and heartfelt analogies between his life and their own.
King also makes analogies between his own life and those of several famous historical figures. Although King's only official title is President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he compares himself to great leaders and religious figures. King alludes to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were companions of biblical David in Babylon, and who disobeyed the laws of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was a famous Babylonian king, but referring to him in this context seems extraneous. In two consecutive sentences, King alludes to both Socrates and the members of the Boston Tea Party in that they acted with civil disobedience (King 163).
King's numerous allusions make his overall point weaker. His goal in alluding to these people is to prove to his fellow clergymen and to the world that he is educated and not a lesser human being than they are. King resented being called an extremist at first and makes many allusions to confirm his point. He reminds the reader that Jesus was an extremist for love in the Bible. He labels Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and the Apostle Paul as extremists who changed the world for the better through their work. King's use of excessive name-dropping makes him seem overly eager to sound intelligent. King is trying to hard to prove that he knows history and literature, and ends up sounding shallow. The allusions that he takes the time to delve into and explain in detail come out sounding very legitimate and leave the reader agreeing with the subject. The allusions that are just names in a single sentence leave the reader wondering how the historical figure really relates to the argument or if they are just there to lend credibility.
When King uses pathos or logos to try and influence his reader, his points sound logical and are easy to understand, but King's overuse of allusions leaves the letter feeling shallow and empty at parts. King digresses from his own arguments with his allusions, and at parts they even weaken his arguments significantly. King states,
Segregation, to use the terminology of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation (King 161).
King's reference to Paul Tillich and Martin Buber is never mentioned again throughout the letter. This short usage leaves a reader wondering how these two men are related to King's argument. It is unknown what Paul Tillich's authority is to make comments on sin. King tries to transfer Tillich's authority to himself in quoting him; however, when the authority is unclear, the image King is trying to convey is not understood by the reader. King creates an emotional appeal with his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and an extremely strong argument essay; however, if he left out some of the one sentence allusions his essay might be more suitable for his intended public audience.
King, Dr. Martin Luther Jr. â€œLetter from Birmingham Jailâ€ 1963.
â€œMartin Luther King, Jr..â€ Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King%2C_Jr.
â€œLetter from Birmingham Jail.â€ Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.