“The Art in Argument” – Ambrosia Sharkey

2nd Place Non-Fiction

In 1963 when “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written by Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement was in full swing. Segregation was still rampant, but protests, sit-ins, and the Black Nationalist movement were sweeping the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. was caught between several varying stances on the subject ranging from complacency to violent nationalism.  In response to mounting pressures and criticism, he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to address these concerns and further persuade his audience to take action. The letter, though addressed to the eight clergymen who publically criticized him, was open for all to read, as his intended audience was everyone in all facets of the movement. This makes for the complex social situation that he accounts for in his rhetorical mode. At the same time, many of the people attacking his views did not understand the depth of the situation or historical parallels behind the civil rights movement, so he enlightens them through emotional appeal, logical proofs, and masterful rhetoric to make his letter “so unanswerable” (Mott 416). To make a persuading argument in his letter, King defends against or disproves completely the opposing arguments, while proving the injustice of segregation, persuading the audience to take direct non-violent action, and maintaining a tone suitable to address his widely varying audience.

In his letter, King first disproves or discredits the accusations from the eight clergymen who publically criticized him in order to establish his credibility to be a leading voice on the issue, and prove he has a right to be protesting in Birmingham. He starts by complimenting the clergymen, saying he believes they are “men of genuine good will” to create an inoffensive tone to keep his opposition reading (King 133). As Wesley T. Mott, a Humanities professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, states in his article, King creates a humble and seemingly pacifying tone as a “calculated rhetorical stance” that “is intended to reveal the inhumanity of the clergymen’s position and hold it up to the scorn of those of us who are reading over their shoulders” (414). To the argument that he is an “outsider coming in,” King mentions his organizational ties there, and how he was asked to be there, and as if that is not reason enough, says, “I am here because injustice is here” (133). King then proceeds into biblical references, about Apostles and aiding the Macedonians, to gain sympathy for his cause from the more- religious audience of the time. King finishes illuminating the truth with parallelism, repetition, and an air of authority in the claim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (133). All these strategies rally the emotions of the reader, force the reader understand the moral responsibility King has to spread his message, and annihilates the argument that he has no right to be protesting in Birmingham or anywhere else in the United States.

King also proves non-violent direct action is the best course for reform, to disprove the criticisms of the opposition and to build credit with the audience. The clergymen criticized King’s demonstrations, suggesting that negotiation was the better path. Using metaphors, imagery, and repetition King explains how they had tried to negotiate, time and time again, only to be denied or given empty promises. With these strategies, King also appeals to the audience’s emotions to gain sympathy. He lays out the logic of how non-violent direct action leads to such tension that a society has to address the issue and negotiate to show the audience the irony of the clergymen’s statement, because that was exactly his goal—to push the governing masses into negotiating. King uses Socrates as a reference to gain respect and to subconsciously reinforce in the audience that his point is logical. He again uses more imagery: “bondage of myths…dark depths of prejudice…majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,” and parallels Socrates’s and his ideas to add dramatic impact, which excites the audience to agree with him in the motivational speech-like rhythm (King 135). He also refers to the historical parallels of well renowned figures fighting for a cause, like Jesus, Amos, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, to establish them as the precedents for direct action. King later suggests that if non-violent direct action had not become an outlet for the anger of the oppressed to be expressed that “by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood” (King 140). This shocking statement quickly compels the audience to realize that they much prefer the non-violent means.

King disproves the argument that they should “wait” and be patient because their actions are “untimely” or that time will help solve their problems, and he calls the audience to action through his rhetorical strategies. To the proposition of giving the new administration more time to act, King responds that they “must be prodded” as much as the one before, again repeating the need for pressure or tension to create change (King 135). He refers to history and Reinhold Niebuhr to enlighten the audience to the truth that “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” justifying their fight for equality (King 135). King uses logic once again to disprove the “myth[s] concerning time…that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills” (King 139). “Actually time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” King states, and then proceeds with parallelism, repetition, figurative language, and logical reasoning to invoke the audience with guilt over the idea that it is the fault of good men who stand by that evil triumphs (King 139). Then he provides that the solution is to act now and uses the same methods to call them to action.

King uses many rhetorical strategies to emotionally manipulate and intellectually enlighten the audience into understanding their plight and sympathizing with it to persuade them to take action. To set up for the periodic sentence of abuses, he repeats the word “wait” for emphasis and then clarifies the hidden meaning behind the word, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’…‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’” (King 135). In his famous periodic sentence that becomes a paragraph, he uses repetition, parallelism, metaphors, detailed imagery, figurative language, and emotionally charged words to list the painful abuses they endured for centuries. The extent of the tragedies is not only an appeal for sympathy from the audience, but the paralleled clauses, repetition, and long periodic sentence give a sense of build and a feeling of waiting for years, to show why “waiting” is not an option. As Mott points out, the metaphor that follows, of the “cup of endurance” overflowing, shadows the “torrent of adverbial clauses…literally pour[ing] over the simple little cup of the main clause, moving us emotionally while convincing us intellectually that ‘waiting’ can no longer be expected” (King 419). King finishes with an understatement that delivers more punch than an exclamation, “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (King 136). Thus, he indirectly exposes the morally gross truth of what asking them to wait implies, to keep from offending the opposition into not listening. This further helps the audience to understand the vast depths of the situation and calls them to action.

To prove the segregation laws needed to be changed and to advocate breaking those laws, King first demonstrates how they were unjust in both a moral and constitutional sense, and that one had an obligation to uphold morality even when the law failed. He repeats throughout the letter the word “freedom” in the place of desegregation to invoke the connection his audience feels to the American Revolution, the constitution, and the ideal America was founded on. This, and metaphors like, “airtight cage of poverty,” subconsciously make the audience feel the figurative physical imprisonment of inequality (King 136). King infallibly lays out a logical proof of how it is unjust in the eyes of the law and morality (King 136-37). He begins with small claims or examples that are undeniably true like there are just and unjust laws, and then he builds logical inferences from them with a Socratic-like method to guide the audience to the inevitable conclusion that segregation is unjust. As a part of this strategy, King defines what makes a law just or unjust in several different ways to build this understanding: “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself…A law is unjust if…” (King 137). To prove that one has a moral obligation to break unjust laws and that he or she must also be willing to accept the consequences, he gives powerful religious and historical examples of breaking unjust laws for the greater moral good: Christians facing hungry lions, Socrates pursuing academic freedom, the Boston Tea Party. King uses Adolf Hitler’s actions, as an example of unjust laws, like a shock of cold water to the face of the audience—awakening them to the truth of the paralleled moral crimes of racial violence and oppression and reminding them just how horrific unjust laws can be. King compels the audience to act through logical comparisons, powerful examples, and proving the segregation laws unjust, thus convincing them change is needed and rallying more support for the movement.

There are other arguments and points made in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but ultimately the lasting impressions are the logical proofs and emotional testimonies of the need for justice and equality. It rings clear that waiting is not an option, and that it is everyone’s moral responsibility to act when an injustice takes place, no matter where. There is no doubt as to the enormous impact of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. He was one of the leading persuasive voices in the call for desegregation and racial equality that built the momentum behind changing an entire country from the inside. With his graceful, calculating, and masterful rhetoric, the talent for dissecting the truth to reveal logical or moral epiphanies, and precisely powerful expressions of emotional testimonies and language, King makes his argument unanswerable and infallible.


Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Wake Tech English 111 Reader. Ed. Julie Fenton-Glass, et al. Mason: Cengage, 2014. 133-45. Print.

Mott, Wesley T. “Rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Phylon 36.4 (1975): 411-21. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.