An Analysis by Hari Sharma
"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or. unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides-and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history."
This speaks a lot about the essence of the letter.
Martin Luther King, born on 15 January, 1929, was a firm advocate of peaceful actions as a means to attain social change (Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project). He was the leader of peaceful protests against the segregation of “Negro” people in America. However, his peaceful protests failed to bring equality. On top of that, on the 10th of April, 1963, the city government of Birmingham passed a legal provision banning street marches without permission (Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project). The black people were not happy with this unfair legislation, which did not allow the blacks to protest for equality. Thus, Martin Luther King was compelled to take action. The march of Birmingham became the reality on 12 April, 1963(Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project).
However, King was arrested on that day. It was on the same day that 8 local clergymen published an open letter in a local newspaper entitled “A call for Unity.” In the letter, they had criticized King saying that the event was “unwise and untimely.” King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to the letter of 8 clergymen defending his actions. King’s masterpiece “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is widely known for its eloquent and powerful use of different literary techniques-ethos, pathos and logos. Among them, he was highly effective in the use of “pathos” –the use of emotions to appeal to the audience. He was well versed with the sermons and speeches from the Bible, and this seems to have helped King create highly emotional writings to appeal to different audiences.
The very first line of King’s letter takes advantage of this strategy of using emotional appeal to get the attention of the audiences. King writes, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came…” (717) He draws the attention of the church leaders to the dungeons of the jail. One is forced to imagine the filthy crowded rooms with little ventilation. This is a symbolic representation of the life of the “Negro” people of that period. The blacks were living a life which was no better than the life in the filthy rooms in the jail. One feels sorry for King from the very beginning of the letter. And yet, King shows a generous attitude towards the white clergymen whom he calls “men of genuine goodwill” (728). This helped him gather the support of those people who otherwise would not have supported King. He used diplomatic criticisms to avoid harsh words against the whites. This soft tone seems to have appealed to many white audiences.
The letter proceeds with different emotional appeals directed at different audiences. Though the letter was primarily written in response to “A Call for Unity” of the 8 clergymen, he took this advantage to get his voice to the public sphere. Thus the letter uses various techniques to appeal to different audiences. Most of the people were highly influenced by religion at that time. So, in many parts of the letter, he uses the name of God to appeal to the people:
* But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom… Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. (728)
He writes that some of the preachers of god have understood the need for justice, but some preachers have suppressed the blacks. He believes that the preachers have to break the traditional, unjustified rules of the society to allow for the freedom of the children of God. The true meaning of the Bible lies in justice and co-existence. He wants moral justice to overcome the traditional norms which were unjust in nature. He conveys this message well in his letter. He further writes:
* One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage…(729)
White people are the children of God. And, so are the blacks. He believes that the value of Christian religion is equality and mutual respect. Various critics have analyzed his use of the name of god in different ways. Wesley T. Mott1 writes that King uses the traditional Negro sermons in the best effective way. Wesley says that King uses the name of god to appeal to the emotions of the masses, and at the same time he avoids the flaws of the traditional Negro sermons by presenting his arguments in a logical way.
King also uses quotes from the Bible to further involve the emotional attachment of the people with the Bible. He compares himself with Apostle Paul when he says that he is going to carry the gospel of freedom to the places beyond his native town. This served two purposes. On one hand, he could reach out to the illiterate people who knew of Paul through churches, and on the other hand, he made it clear that he was undertaking a big mission. So, the whites were expected to come to support him in the name of god.
James A. Colaiaco, in the paper “The American Dream Unfulfilled: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Letter from Birmingham Jail (1984, p.4)” notes that King’s comparison with Paul is highly effective. He says that both King and Paul composed great writings while in jail for their disciples. This comparison makes people more emotional as they know a lot about Paul from the religious ceremonies. So, it was effective during that period. He had to target the church leaders who did not think of blacks as the children of god. So, by saying that all people are the children of god, and that he had a greater task of liberating the children of god, he was able to appeal to a large mass.
Besides using the name of god to appeal to the people, King presents the real scenario of the life of the Negro people to arouse sympathy towards the blacks. His writing is sensational. He forces the people to think of the hopeless life the blacks were living during that period when he writes:
* But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers 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 (720).
He writes this in response to the argument that the event of Birmingham (1963) was untimely. This is possibly the strongest part of his letter. People just cannot control their emotions while reading this part. It is tough for one to dream, let alone experience, a scene where people attack parents. All people have a sense of dignity. So, people cannot bear the pain when someone pounds on their parents. Furthermore, Negro people were living in abject poverty when the whites were living a comfortable life. A sense of being “ignored” from the society is certain to develop further hatred towards the whites. So, he expected the whites to look into the movement from the Negro perspective. Careful choice of words and events of that period made this paragraph highly effective. He believes that the Negro had waited for long to get their natural rights. So, there was no more time for “wait and see” strategy. He further writes, “our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us” (718). He believes that there is no time to wait. Historical evidences had proved that the whites were not going to change unless blacks demanded their rights. So, King uses emotional sentences not only to arouse the sympathy of the readers, but also to justify his actions.
Throughout the essay King repeats many basic arguments to arouse the emotions. His argument was that racial injustice was not tolerable. However, he seems to have failed to address this argument in the best effective way through his writing. As Wesley T. Mott notes in the paper, “The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that King is not effective when he uses trite sentences like: “dark clouds of racial prejudice/radiant stars of love.” Wesley believes that these sentences could be effective on direct speeches, but when it comes to writing, they become cliché. However, King was effective during that period as people were moved by the events happening at that time. They had seen the injustice. So, even a trite remark on the prevailing scene was sufficient to arouse interest among those people who had a sympathetic heart.
King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a great piece of writing. He has been able to make it one of the most widely read article. Emotional strength of the article is one of the factors behind the success of this writing. Despite the use of stereotyped sentences, his message is clear and sensational. Thus, it is a masterpiece among King’s writings.
(note:This is an analysis of King’s letter. The paragraphs in italics and (numbers) indicate quotes from the letter . Sources have been suppressed due to space limitations. Please contact me at mail.dreamnepal(at)gmail.com if you want to use this paper in part or in full.)