Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a prime example the efficient use of rhetoric. While this might be a letter addressing the criticism King had faced before being imprisoned, it serves a highly persuasive value. Because this piece is so moving, it is important that as part of the audience receiving the text, I analyze the piece both textually and contextually.
Something to notice automatically is how King arranges his thoughts in this letter. He begins by clarifying the reason for which he is writing the letter. He makes it known that what he is about to write is of meaning because he rarely responds to criticism. After his introduction of his passage, he states his credentials in the paper. Knowing that he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with a minister of the church established ethos for King as a speaker, almost instantaneously.
Martin Luther King Jr. then transitions the letter by talking about former demonstrations and the ultimate cause for his violent protest, even though he himself does not view his actions as violent or extremist. In order to do a contextual analysis, it is important for the audience to read King’s four step nonviolent campaign (1). This campaign is more or less the rhetorical situation, the reason as to why King is writing the letter. The constant ignorance of the black activists by the white moderates is the reason King took such unfortunate actions in Birmingham. Here, King’s ethos is reestablished because now his actions seem mediated and necessary, giving King the support necessary form the letter itself.
Another thing to notice in his letter is King’s understanding of his audience. While writing the letter, King did not know it would be received years later by an unintended audience. In fact, he was writing directly to an audience he believed to be hostile and angry at his views. Therefore, it was necessary for him to watch his words yet still make assertions about the people he is writing to. For example, several times in his letter, King predicts a counter-argument by his audience. This is very smart because he does not give another chance for criticism; rather, he answers to them before they even arise. Only a talented rhetor can do such a thing because the audience’s reaction is unpredictable. King also portrays himself to be a man of great intellect through this letter. His tone is never attacking or uneducated. In fact, he makes sure to not direct the whites directly by using too many “you” statements. In contrast, he addresses his problems toward the “white moderates,” “the church,” etc.
King’s writing style supports his message perfectly. He uses simple words, yet makes complex sentences. His use of punctuation varies from different quotes, semicolons, and colons. King also provides metaphors and similes such as, “like a boil that can never be cured…” (5). Perhaps the biggest attribute to his style is his use of allusions. In his letter, King references many known figures to emphasize his thoughts even further. One allusion I, as the audience, picked up right away from his text is the allusion of Apostle Paul. This is a clever allusion to use because one, King is a devoted minister, and two, his audience can understand the reference to a religious figure almost immediately. As the piece goes on, King also mentions other people like Adolf Hitler, Jesus, Socrates, and more. These references only add logos, or logic, to King’s statements.
I applaud King for blending his text to be forensic rhetoric, deliberative rhetoric, and epideictic rhetoric at the same time. He states the facts of the past that led up to this revolution, he talks about the current state of inequality in America, and he promotes actions of the future that can save America from becoming an unjust state. Once again, it takes a successful rhetor to utilize all three forms of rhetoric in his/her text.
Of course, I can go on and on about the textual and contextual analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter. It is through this analysis that one can see why King was such an influential speaker and advocate of his time. He knew how to manipulate his text with the proper use of rhetoric. If it were not for this, perhaps he would not have left such a huge impact in history.