Martin Luther kings letter from Birmingham jail: An Analysis

Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail captures some of the core elements of his public discourse.  Although the letter had not been orated in public, it is similar in style to his more popular public speeches and brings out the inspirational and charismatic aspects of King’s personality.  The letter was first published in The Atlantic as “”The Negro Is Your Brother”.  It was written in response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by some prominent Caucasian religious leaders of the Southern states. Even today, the document is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of literature to have come out during the civil-rights movement.  The passage chosen for this discussion is given in quotations below.  This passage is a classic example of the manifestation of Dr. King’s charisma and eloquence.  It also demonstrates some of the tools of rhetoric that King used in his speeches and writings that have a powerful effect on the listener. Some key sentences from the following passage will be taken for deeper analysis:

 “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But  ………………………….when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobody-ness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience”.

The very first sentence demonstrates King’s employment of a historical perspective to current political events.  Here, the reference to “three hundred and forty years” is in reference to the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.  Such references give an aura of authenticity and credibility to the point being illustrated.  Martin Luther King was a master of this technique.

Another recognizable aspect of King’s individual style of narration lies in the allusion to the suffering of close family members.  For instance, “hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters”.  The usage of “brothers and sisters” is a particularly powerful rhetorical tool.  This was a time when many African Americans were adopting Islam as their religion, which is founded on the principles of universal brotherhood.  Hence, it has appeal to that section of the black community as well.  In the same vein is the mention of the difficulties facing young black Americans.

Take another example, “your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children”.  Here too the inside out depiction of the ordeals in the microcosm of an African American family is used to illustrate the general sufferings of the rest of the black community.  Moreover, the clever juxtaposition of “tears welling up” and “Funtown” makes a poignant impression on the listeners.

Many political commentators have pointed to King’s charisma manifesting in his public discourse.  A prime example where his persona stamps itself on the message as in “when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy””.  Here King employs his own personal experiences of humiliation and discrimination in portraying the broader issue.

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