Analyzing Language in Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King’s, Jr. a renowned civil rights activist, religious leader and advocator of peaceful methods of protest lives up to these expectations in this letter he wrote while locked up in jail at Birmingham. It is a masterpiece written with deep emotion but also eloquent in its purpose. As response to the white clergymen who had dismissed him as an outsider or extremist, they questioned his latest activities in Birmingham. Therefore, to avoid any hostility or bitterness-generated response, he uses a number of methods to send his message to the oppressor. In this, case the white supporters of segregation.
From the outlook of this letter, King uses generally euphemism. This in regards of addressing the injustices towards the black people in America and as it would be perceived his detractors, the eight clergymen from Birmingham and in general the segregationists. In his letter he calls them ‘brothers’ (Bass, 237), which is what he envisions but the situation is not necessary so. Though noble and the right thing to do, it does not go unnoticed that he mentions some of the injustices that he himself, has faced. Top among them are segregation, humiliation and unlawful arrests, which being serious atrocities, he uses rather ‘pleasant language’ to address those who have caused them.
There is lack of generalization in this letter. King seeks to show that not all white people in America are supporters of segregation nor does he state that all black people are victims of the same. However, he tries to also show that majority of both groups have are affected in their own right. This fact is even more vivid when he uses specific names of people, other than dismiss a certain section all together. He recognizes the fact there are few white brothers in the south who have realized the importance of social revolution and are committed to it. He also observes, that a part of the middle-class Black community has become insensitive to the needs of the masses because they gain form segregation (Cohen & Fermon, 630).
There is a lot of Biblical allusion in this letter. As renowned religious leader, King, had to show that his argument and actions had a religious perspective and basis. Moreover, his immediate audience was clergymen whom he was responding to; therefore, it would have a greater understanding to them to do so. He interestingly likens himself to Jesus by accepting the tag of ‘an extremist’, stating, that Jesus was an extremist for love since he asked his disciples to love those who hate them. In reference to the movement, he justifies it by stating if the early Christians had remained in their towns and ministered the gospel there, the church would not be what it is today (Sernett, 532).
In broad-spectrum, King uses the force of language to accomplish his goal, which he does (Tiefenbrun, 255). He concentrates on the core issues therefore avoiding direct confrontation with the supporters of these issues. It also forces every person whether the oppressor or oppressed to re-evaluate the situation and what part they have played in the whole situation. Consequently, the tension created enables an effective response not only to the clergymen but also to all those questioning his actions and encouragement to victims of segregation and injustice. The Letter from Birmingham Jail is a masterpiece in both the literary and civil rights aspects. It is a revolution in its self on the weapons of advocacy. Conclusively, an ageless classic should serve generations to come.
Bass, Jonathan. Blessed are the Peace Makers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Print.
Cohen, Mitchell and Nicole Fermon. Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts Since Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.
Sernett, Milton. African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1999. Print.
Tiefenbrun, Susan. Semiotics and Martin Luther King’s: Letter from Birmingham Jail. New York: Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, 1992. Print.