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Letter from a Birmingham Jail Study Guide (1)

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Study questions: Please answer these questions in complete sentences. Refer to the text as much as
possible, paraphrasing yet using “direct quotes” with important text (cite textual evidence).
Part 1: Introduction:
1. To whom is Dr. King addressing this letter (audience)? What is the initial TONE? Does the
audience affect the tone? What words/lines tell you this? Dr. King is referring to fellow
clergymen. His initial tone was somewhat apologetic and yet, still respectful. The audience does
affect the tone because he thinks highly of these men so instead of responding in a dismissive
matter, he responds to their criticisms. the line “you are men of genuine good will and that your
criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be
patient and reasonable terms,” tell me this.
2. What are the three reasons Dr. King is in Birmingham? The “I am here” phrase beginning
several sequential sentences is called what rhetorical device?
- He was invited
- He came to help the Southern Christian Group
- He came because of the Rampant Racism and injustices that was more prevalent in
3. There is a shift in pronouns, from “I” to “you.” What does Dr. King do here? (He will do this
several times throughout the letter). King does this because he wants the audience to think
about the reasoning for their criticisms so that it may more effectively alter their views or to be
able to better understand his point of view.
4. What are some of the allusions mentioned so far? Why are they important? Does is help to
identify AND affect the audience? WHY? King alludes to figures such as, Apostle Paul, St. Thomas
Aquinas, Jesus, etc. They are important because like him, they were all labeled “extremist” for
their forms of peaceful protest. Since these people were held in such high regard, this identifies
what the audience would identify as necessary to enact change. It affects the audience because
the people he is addressing have labeled his actions as a form of extremism even though his
actions somewhat mirror those taken by the same people they hold in such high regard.
5. What has been happening in Birmingham? He describes them as “facts.” What techniques does
King describe? In Birmingham, particularly severe forms segregation, brutality, and terrorism
targeted towards black people were taking place. Kind describes the bombings of homes
inhabited by black people, he describes the unjust treatment of black people in the court
system, and he describes how Birmingham is the most segregated city in the United States at
the time.
6. Expressions such as “garments of destiny,” “bogged down in monologue,” “shadow of deep
disappointment”, are figures of thought (tropes), otherwise known as Metaphors. (similes,
metaphors, personification, allusion).
7. Dr. King describes addressing a) political, b) economic c) social aspects of society by the end of
his letter. All of the above.
8. “You deplore the demonstrations” and “rest content,” yet “do not “grapple with” underlying
causes sets up a a. comparison, b. contrast, c. simile, d. rhetorical question. b.contrast
9. What are the four steps of a non-violent campaign? Where does Dr. King talk about each (give
lines)? The four steps of a nonviolent campaign are collection of the facts to determine whether
injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. He gives these steps in the first
line of paragraph six.
What is the word repeated after the paragraph starting, “You may well ask…” How is this word
expanded? Direct action. This word is expanded by king going into full detail about how
protestors need to use direct actions to create any change.
What is the powerful metaphor, created by contrast here (lines 118-9)? “and men are no longer
willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair”
What is the purpose of a direct-action program? The purpose of a direct action program was to
force the public to acknowledge their issues by creating “such a crisis and foster such a tension,”
that they would be unable to ignore it.
What are more allusions here? More allusions include the Hungarian freedom fighters, John
We see more parallel structure here with “We know…..” What antitheses are found? Antitheses
include the contrast between how the oppressors behave parallel to how the oppressed behave.
Describe the symbol of “wait,” and its definition. The white moderate uses the word “wait” to
keep the oppressors from standing up because the timing is inconvenient, and to “wait” for
better opportunities although these opportunities won’t come at convenient times.
What is the metaphor for “wait”, in America, and the diction following? In America, “wait”
means never, and the diction that follows is “We must come to see, with one of our
distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied,"”
What is the anaphora that creates this powerful passage? It begins with what phrases? What is
the most powerful imagery for you?
Dr. King addresses an issue: “You express an anxiety over our willingness to break laws.” He
directly addresses a. just laws, b. unjust laws, c. both, d. neither. c. both
Reminder: who is the “you”? Depending on the context, you can refer to the black community,
the white moderate, or the clergymen.
The two “let us” paragraphs does what in terms of function? (a. incorporates the audience with
King’s experiences, b. provides concrete examples of just and unjust laws c. lists unjust laws d.
provides just Alabama laws for electoral bases) b. provides concrete examples of just and unjust
Who evidenced civil disobedience? Socrates and the people involved in the Boston Tea party
OOOPsie ,Dr. King did make a reference to someone who did everything “legal.” Might this be a
troublesome comparison? This might be troublesome because some people would say that it
isn’t right to make a comparison between Nazi Germany and Jim Crow America.
Another shift: “I must make two honest confessions…” Can you find how many there are?
(hopes) 11 I think.
Dr. King also speaks of how he is considered an “extremist.” He is “disappointed,” many times
over. In WHAT? King was disappointed in the fact that his forms of protest have been deemed as
acts of extremism.
What had he heard/watched/observed? Is that an anaphora? Oh, and another set of rhetorical
questions? King had “heard religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a
desegregation decision because it’s the law.” “He watched white churchmen stand on the
sideline and mouth irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” and He observed “their ugly
and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail.” He uses both anaphora’s and
rhetorical questions to emphasize his points.
“There was a time” which describes what? What are the modern consequences? Is there
disappointment? This time describes an era where people were proud to suffer for what they
believed in and Christians had more influence. Now the church holds little influence and more
often then not does little to differentiate itself from the “status quo”. There is disappointment.
The lines, “I have no despair, … I have no fear,… Before the pilgrims…, before the pen of
Jefferson, we were here” combine the elements of a. anaphora, b. metaphor, c. allusions, d. all
of the above , d. all of the above
Again, a great parallel structure comes from the last paragraphs. “I doubt you would…. If you
were to see…”. About whom is he talking? What is the diction? Is the connotation positive or
negative? In this context, King is referring to the white moderate, his diction tense and were
meant to evict emotion from the audience. The connotation is negative.
What will be the results of the “Negro sit-inners?” What is the closing “tone”? The result will be
people of color being treated more fairly. The closing tone seems to resemble pride, specifically
in the people involved in all of the protests.
How does Dr. King close his letter? King closes his letter by addressing the clergymen and his
hopes for the future dictated in a metaphor.
Has Dr. King’s voice (tone), purpose, and argument been effective? Give evidence. His tone,
purpose, and argument were effective considering the amount figurative language meant to
elicit emotion as well as the specific situations that he brough up to justify things that he was
done and to make the audience reconsider any preconceived notions. its impact it had on
history. This is evident by him bringing up revered men such as Abraham Lincoln and Jesus and
describing how their actions paralleled his own and how police her being praised even though
they were vicious towards people of color.
What “parts” could you organize this speech into? Where? 1. Addressing criticisms 2.deciding
the right time to make a stand 3.The white moderate 4. Unjust vs. Just 5. Peaceful extremism. 6.
direct action 7. Disappointment 8. Hope for the future.
By Cheryl L. Wood, MST