Martin Luther King. Speaks of "Letter from Birmingham jail"

Essay by chris healthUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, November 1996

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Rhetoric I

Martin Luther King Jr.'s brilliant dissertation, 'Letter from Birmingham Jail', details injustice, segregation, and inequality in Birmingham, Alabama, 'probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States' (6.344). King's argumentative passages persuade the reader, and add credibility to his vehement and vivid discourse. Schemes and tropes are among the oratorical devices which King uses to communicate with his audience, and stir emotional response. The numerous figures of speech augment the clarity, liveliness, and passion of King's rhetoric.

'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' (10.345) is a classic series of rhetorical questions. These questions are an effective literary tool which motivates the reader into weighing the moral justification by questioning his or her own thought of the subject. The rhetorical questions King ask clarify the various paths available to those engaged in such social adjustment. The reader is forced to contemplate whether or not to use direct action to achieve equality.

As well as rhetorical questions, King uses both anaphora and epistrophe frequently throughout his 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'. 'Was not Jesus an extremist for love: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God' (31.351). King invokes the memories of principled individuals of prominence in this passage which influence the reader, giving substance to King's discourse. Idols such as these used in this quotation...