MLK’s Rhetorical Use of Style in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

MLK’s Rhetorical Use of Style in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
This entry is part 19 of 29 in the series Quote of the Day.

There are several reasons readers should familiarize themselves with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (also known as “The Negro Is Your Brother”). First and most significantly, it was written during “a critical turning point in the struggle for African American civil rights” and is, therefore, generally considered “the most important written document of the modern civil rights movement and a classic text on civil disobedience” (Milestone Documents).

But the letter is also a brilliant example of the art of persuasion as it masterfully analyzes its dual audience: the eight clergymen who reacted to King’s nonviolent activities, and King’s fellow demonstrators. And like all well-crafted persuasive writing, it employs all the rhetorical methods of appeal — the appeal to reason, character, emotion, and style (Aims of Argument 116-140).

I’ll address briefly here how a portion of King’s letter appeals to his audience via style, or those choices a writer makes at the level of words, phrases, and sentences. Take this passage, for example.

We have waited for more that 340 years for our constitutional and Godgiven rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored” when your first name becomes “Nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and 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 are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” 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 the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

First, along with creating in the readers a sense of outrage, King’s concrete examples, personal experiences, metaphors/similes, sharp contrasts/comparsions, and sentence rhythm paint a picture; they appeal to sight. For example, the jailed preacher contrasts the phrase jetlike speed, which with Africa was overcoming colonialism, with the phrase horse-and-buggy pace, the unfortunate rate at which America was attempting to do the same. See also stinging darts of segregation, clouds of inferiority, little mental sky, and the other phrases in blue above.

Second, even when read silently, King’s words here also possess sound, a variation of sentence length, a use of rhythmic patterns, and repetition for emphasis. Regarding the latter, see his use of the phrase when you. Through the repetition of these two words (marked in red above), the writer “piles up examples of racial discrimination” that he and the black community have experienced, driving home his point about the need for racial equality. King also makes use of parallelism in this portion of the letter, employing similar words phrases to reiterate a point: lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim (green above).

Finally, King’s fondness for alliteration is also evident here when he describes the police’s horrific actions: “curse, kick, and kill” (pink above). As the authors of Aims of Argument point out, the repetition of this hard K sound, “especially in words of one syllable, suggest the violence of the acts themselves.” So the the next time you read a piece of Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings — be it his “I Have a Dream” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — I hope you’ll notice the clergyman’s/activist’s/rhetorician’s appeal to style (as well as his art of persuasion) alongside his many other monumental accomplishments for this country.

Further Reading