Letter from a Birmingham Jail Essay
From preacher to how Martin Luther King appeals to his audience. Martin Luther King is remembered as a passionate preacher and orator, but one of his most moving contributions to the Civil Rights Movement is in the form of a letter which he wrote in Birmingham jail. The paragraph beginning “We have waited for more than 340 years” (King, 1963) illustrates his ability to move his audience by means of a skilful use of emotions. He presents a challenge to liberal supporters of the Civil Rights Movement who advocate patiently waiting for reform and pursuing that objective through the courts rather than any form of civil action on the streets. The text is full of emotion, and especially impatience and indignation, but these are expressed in a controlled and measured way, often using figurative language rather than stating the author’s position outright. He challenges his readers to act, rather than just observe what is happening and his use of figurative and often Biblical language, along with plenty of pathos, drives this message home.
An example of the imprisoned author’s impatience is seen in his use of descriptive contrasts between the experience of other nations and the experience of African American citizens in the United States. He compares the “jetlike speed” (King, 1963) of Asian movements for political independence with the “horse-and-buggy pace” (King, 1963) of his own experience. In order to galvanise Christian readers Dr King makes good use of familiar Biblical language. This is an important tactic in reaching the clergymen who have thus far given only moderate and limited support to the civil rights agenda. The phrase “the cup of endurance runs over” (King, 1963), for example, is a deliberate contrast to the Christian concept of the believer’s cup overflowing with joy. The “abyss of despair” (King, 1963) recalls traditional Christian imagery of the pilgrim on his difficult path to salvation. Even the letter format is based on examples drawn from the New Testament writings of Paul. In both form and content, therefore, the author presents lively imagery and the familiar language of Christian experiences in order to gain the widest possible support from clergymen and newspaper readers.
Dr King uses pathos to explain his children’s disappointment. They find themselves excluded from many pleasant things because of the color of their skin. By presenting the experience from the innocent child’s point of view, the author maximizes the emotional impact of segregation and encourages the reader to react with sympathy for the African American people, rather than with fear or resentment. The complex political and social issues are reduced to a simple question that even a young child can understand, namely “why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (King, 1963). This tactic of reducing things to the most basic level is a powerful way of making people face up to the fundamental issue, rather than become bogged down in the detail of day-to-day resistance and suppression of resistance. In short, he is advocating a simple solution to match the simple questions of his children.
Many of Dr King’s readers had raised complicated objections to active resistance against the oppression of African American citizens. Many felt it was too soon to act, or that resistance would provoke more oppression. Although the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (King, 1963) had no discernible effect when it was first smuggled out of the jail, some observers within the civil rights movement rightly noted that it was a very important milestone. Wyatt T. Walker helped to turn Martin Luther King’s scrappy notes into a typed essay, and was immediately impressed and was “euphoric at being on hand for the creation of what he felt sure was another epistle like those of the early apostles in prison” (Frady, 2002, p. 110).
The finished letter shows a combination of the fiery style of the preacher and the righteous indignation of a father who wants his children to grow up in a world that is not defined by racism and oppression. Through the use of pathos and Biblical imagery these two elements make this one of the most powerful texts in twentieth century American history.
Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” April 16th, 1963. Available online at: http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html