Student Rhetorical Analysis Example Fall 2014 “Elements of Rhetoric: ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’” Martin Luther King Jr.’s character was marked by individuality; he stood up for what he deemed as just. While King was ultimately successful in helping to end segregation, he found himself in many tribulations along the journey. He was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama because he and other civil rights activists announced that they would not follow a ruling to cease public protesting of segregation. During King’s time in jail, he received a letter of criticism from eight Alabama clergymen. To summarize, the clergymen told King to stop his protests and let them solve the problem of segregation on their own accord. However, King knew that leaving the issue in their hands would not solve anything. Having come from men of his stature, as he was also a clergyman, the letter provoked him to write a response. King’s letter in response is known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Through this letter, Martin Luther King Jr. uses successful techniques of persuasion, such as references to the Bible and patriotic ideas to convince his audience that segregation must be ended in the South. King writes the letter with a very specific audience in mind: the eight Alabama clergymen that criticized his efforts to end segregation. However, King knew that these men would not be the only eyes to ever read the letter. Due to his immense popularity, King was aware that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would reach the American public. Citizens of the United States watched his every action; hence, the letter circulated rapidly. Specifically, Southerners were interested in the letter because segregation was so 2 prevalent in the Southern states. On a deeper level, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reached the audience of those African Americans that experienced segregation first-hand. In order to capture the attention of the eight Alabama Clergymen, King had to establish a common ground. Immediately, he presents himself as an equal by opening his letter with “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” In fact, he states that he is a “fellow clergymen and Christian brother.” King knew this was crucial to establish for his specific audience in order for them to consider his opinions. He identifies and connects with the clergymen, establishing ethos. For example, he references to himself as one who is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my [King’s] home town” such as Paul did with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This statement shows that he is knowledgeable about the faith of the eight clergymen and has the same desires to spread the gospel as they do. Ethos - used effectively throughout “Letter from Birmingham Jail” - is also used by King to establish his character. It was publicly known that King was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. However, he references in the letter that he is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King goes on to say that this organization appears in every Southern state and has “85 affiliated organizations across the South.” Background information was meant to persuade the clergymen that King was a credible source of reason and his opinion was relevant. King’s resources were vast. Connections to politicians, popularity, and incredible charisma in his speeches made King’s goal of convincing the clergymen that segregation was unjust a reasonable possibility. Credibility was not an issue for King. He was known across the United States for his efforts to end segregation. This civil rights arbitrator was backed by 85 organizations and individual supporters who not officially part of a group. 3 Moreover, King had many opposers that became restraints, such as the Alabama clergymen who made their opposition most public, as seen in “Letter to King.” As this letter gives King an opportunity to make a change, it is labeled as exigence. In “Letter to King,” the clergymen labeled King’s “present activities [efforts to end segregation] ‘unwise and untimely.’” To borrow the cliché, this was the clergymen telling King to “stop while you’re ahead.” They did not want their power to be jeopardized. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was not written with a spiteful tone, rather, a respectfully opinionated response to opposition from the clergymen: “Letter to King.” They requested that King to stop all demonstrations regarding segregation. The clergymen encouraged King to let the situation be handled by the locals rather than outsiders. The term “outsiders” refers to King. Preceding that statement, the clergymen applauded the community for handling the riots so well. To contrast, King argues that the community handles the demonstrations with horrible violence. He vividly describes situations opposite of what the clergymen claim. For example, King states that there are “vicious mobs [that] lynch your mothers and fathers,” and adds that there are “hate filled policemen [that] curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters.” Ironically, the clergymen specifically applaud the policemen in their efforts. However, King defends his counterarguments with poise and provides evidence to support his claims. Other leaders were also opposed to King’s efforts. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to help with King’s campaign to remove embarrassing signs that promoted segregation. Nonetheless, this turned out to be a “broken promise.” In fact, Shuttlesworth played a key role in orchestrating King’s arrest. 4 A writer that knows his audience will write to appeal to them. King holds the same title, clergyman, as those in his specific audience so he references biblical ideas to capture the clergymen’s attention. This use of ethos is a tactical approach. To begin with, King mentions the “prophets of the eighth century” and the Apostle Paul because they all carried their gospels of Jesus Christ “far beyond the boundaries of their own towns.” He is comparing himself to the previous figures because he aims to carry his message of freedom and equality beyond Alabama and throughout the South. Next, King tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s gods. Hence, giving King the opportunity to show the clergymen that in their Bible men did not conform to “unjust laws.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego believed that being forced to worship something they did not believe in was an unjust law, therefore justifying King’s actions to disrespectfully disagree with the clergymen’s acceptance of segregation. His ample biblical knowledge further establishes ethos. Showing a sense of patriotism was also an appeal to the clergymen. Not only was this appealing to them, but also to all United States citizens. King establishes himself as a lover of his country, similar to the clergymen and American people. He exclaimed, “Anyone who lives inside the U.S. can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” The “outsider” refers to African Americans who suffer because of segregation. In conclusion, this quote justifies that King is also a citizen with equal rights, as are all African Americans. Therefore, no one may be denied his human rights. To add to his point that no one is an outsider within the bounds of the country, King mentions the Constitution. By doing so, King appeals to reason, hence establishing logos. He questions that if all men are created equal, why has the nation deviated from 5 the foundation it was built upon. King’s strategy was to persuade the eight clergymen that he was not acting without purpose or out of rebellion, but rather dutifully following the First Amendment. A fitting response constitutes three elements: reaching, pleasing and moving an audience. Indeed, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a fitting response. He reaches his specific audience - eight Alabama clergymen - as he addresses the letter directly to them. Indirectly, he also reaches the American public. Although citizens were not King’s intended audience, the letter is a cry for help that can only be satisfied by action taken by the American people. One cannot say that King pleases the clergymen with the letter, as they are embarrassed of being publicly chastised. However, he pleases all African Americans and Southerners who are against segregation. Lastly, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is justifiably one of the most powerful and moving pieces ever written. As it grew to a more public audience, support increased immensely. For example, the National Council of Churches took action in supporting civil rights legislation. In addition, various religious groups lobbied Congress on behalf of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King’s letter was unequivocally a fitting response. Despite counterarguments, King successfully voices a strong message stating that segregation must be stopped. He does so by establishing a common ground with his audience, and appeals to them by using ethos and logos. King connects with his audiences on a personal level by referencing biblical text and ideas of patriotism. Indeed, King composed a fitting response that moved a nation.