Rhetorical Analysis of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"
In “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to the criticism he receives after the nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of the misunderstanding from his fellow clergymen, so his purpose in this essay is to clarify to them his reasons for engaging in the demonstration. He also shows his deep disappointment for the white moderate and several white churches that refuse to understand the freedom movement of the African Americans in the south. He refutes all the points that his fellow clergymen make by using logical reasoning and tell them about the unjust situation in Birmingham. It is an effective strategy that will persuade his letter’s readers to stand by him.
In the first paragraph, Martin Luther King, Jr. is using a front door approach. He remarks about “recent statement calling [his] present activities ‘unwise and untimely’” (305-306). His intention is that his reader will be cognizant that this respond letter is mainly about refuting these two misunderstanding. This method will attract readers’ interest and they will pay more attention to what he is going to say. After introducing his main idea in the beginning of the paragraph, Dr. King starts to explain his main idea in the remaining paragraph.
Throughout the essay, King’s use of logical reasoning to convince his reader about his reason for engaging the nonviolent demonstration is impeccable. He says that: “Several months ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program … We readily consented and when the hour came we lived up to our promises … I am here because I have basic organizational ties here” (306). He asks his reader, can we break our promise? Can we ignore our affiliate organization when they are in need? To break the promise and ignore someone who is in need is immoral. It is not what a man of God should do. He points out another reason he needs to be engaged in the activities by saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (306). Since there is injustice happening in Birmingham, he feels that he must respond to the call of aid there. He continues with “the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative” (307). This is the strongest reason throughout the essay; he wants to respond to the injustice with negotiation, but because of there is no possible way to negotiate with the white moderate of the city, and they must proceed with direct-action activities.
After Dr. King clarifies his reasons, it is time for him to declare his purpose of direct action. He remarks that: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (308). It is mentioned in previous paragraph that direct action is the only option they have, and it also is the most effective way to force the community to face the current issue. His reason is clear, that is to open a path to negotiation with the white moderate. He expands his intention from a smaller area in the south to the whole African American community within the nation. He says, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (309). Here, he implies that every individual African American throughout the nation is still oppressed from the white moderate. He hopes that with Birmingham direct action, African American people throughout the country will benefit.
King also refutes the statement that say, African American people should wait until the right time to gain their right by saying that they should not wait any longer. He tells the reader “This ‘wait!’ has almost always meant ‘never’ … we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights” (309-310). He asks his reader that has 340 years not long enough for African American to wait? Shall they wait any longer? After this long waiting time, it seems for them that the word wait equals never. So if he doesn’t do it now, someone will do it anytime in the future. He says, “Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively” (314). He uses this sentence to tell the people that tell him to wait any longer that time has nothing to do with someone’s struggle for human rights. Neutral. It is human who decided, what is timely and what is untimely. Therefore, he thinks that it is unwise to wait any longer.
Dr. King continues with telling the clergymen who criticize him about the situation African Americans in Birmingham or maybe through out the country often counter. Because of the clergymen might not know the pain of being an oppressed people, so he tells them some of the current situation:
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and your brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity. (310)
I think that everyone who experiences this kind of humiliation will retaliate. The reason he tells his reader about this unjust situation is that they will try to walk in his shoes. People find it easy to say wait because they are just observers rather than the one who involved in the matter. He tries to convince his fellow clergymen that white moderate in Birmingham treat colored people inhumanly by saying, “if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys” (321). He reminds his fellow clergymen that they should not ever come into a conclusion before they see any facts. It is because of their lack of knowledge about the actual discrimination issue that is happening in Birmingham, so that they misunderstand his reason and intention for engaging in the direct-action program.
Overall, Martin Luther King, Jr. did a good job of explaining his reasons and intention to his reader. I think after his reader read this letter, they would understand and agree with his action, and hopefully they will do their best to aid him to achieve his goal.
Bibliography: 75 thematic reading