English 102 Sect. 403
February 16, 2015
Essay 2: Letter from Birmingham Jail
Rhetorical Analysis: Letter from Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a humanitarian, Baptist minister, and civil rights activist during the 1950 and 1960’s. During this time, Dr. King and his (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) staged a series of non-violent protest to combat the current racial situation in Birmingham, Alabama. A week into his involvement, King was arrested on charges of unlawful protesting. King’s civil disobedience caused a group of eight white clergymen to openly criticize his methods of demonstration in a local paper. While in jail, King received the article and used his time in incarceration to reply to their criticisms in a point by point rebuttal. Dr. King was attempting to convince the eight white clergymen that he was just in his presence in Birmingham, and that is rights were violated for being jailed. What separates Dr. King’s argument from the norm was his ability to effectively use all aspects of the rhetorical triangle. I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is rhetorically sound in his use of ethos, pathos and logos when stating that his past actions were moral.
Although Dr. King directly addressed the eight white clergymen, I believe he intended to write the letter for all of America to read. This is shown in Dr. King’s attempt to publish the letter in the New York Times (Maranzani). The Times never published King’s work for fear of backlash, but the letter later gained popularity when the Atlantic Monthly printed it in July of the same year. King also alludes to the American populace when he says, “we will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, here and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom” (King). With that said, Dr. King also tries to connect with the eight white clergymen on a similar level. Near the end of letter, King appeals to the clergymen biblically when he describes himself as a fellow clergymen and Christian Brother. I think King is smart in doing this because him to talk to his audience on a personal level.
At the time of the “Letter’s” publication, King was widely known as a polarizing figure in America’s political and moral landscape. The audience to which he was trying to convince, clergymen and southern white supremacists, viewed King’s reputation and ethos in a negative light. This is mostly caused by King’s civil rights agitations and protests done before the events in Birmingham. Kings most famous civil rights incident was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 in which King was also arrested. Aside from his civil rights activism King was also known for his education and theology experience. King began his education at Morehouse College at the age of 15 and eventually received a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. Ultimately King ended his academics at Boston College where he received a PhD in Theology. King used his education to gain popularity as a public speaker and preacher at his church in Montgomery, Alabama. Aside from King’s outside credibility, he also establishes himself through various examples throughout the piece.
I believe that King also tries to gain credibility in the content of the letter itself. This is evident in the tone that King uses throughout the letter. To start, King addresses the letter to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” (King). I think that King wants to sound reasonable and respectful despite his anger towards his audience. King also tries and successfully gains credibility by writing about some of his past credentials. King describes himself as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which is an organizations that focuses on the betterment of racial tensions and rights. I am confident that it was necessary for King to tell this about himself because it gives him a valid reasons for his organization of protest in Birmingham.
Not only does King