While imprisoned, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, ‘A letter from Birmingham Jail’ as a response to eight clergymen who published a statement that emphatically disagreed with King’s methods of protest towards racism. Dr. King’s reply is demonstrated in a writing style that could be described as ‘efficient’ as he balanced different aspects of organization of his thoughts and passion through use of rhetorical devices to achieve an effective argument.
Dr. King, possibly from his pastoral background, wrote his letter in an eloquent, sermon-like matter, yet it was his use of rhetorical devices that effectively stitched his argument together and gave it an interesting flow, either by reminding the reader of his purpose in writing, or to progress through his reasons in an impactful way. Some prominent, and often used, rhetorical devices were ones such as antithesis, which conveyed specifics of Dr. King’s purpose in writing the letter. For instance, the statements, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (p. 807) and “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” (p. 807) references to his hopes of convincing the clergymen that protest is the only way in which equality between races can be achieved. A rhetorical device that attained an overall smooth progression of ideas while heightening his argument was parallelism. A good example of this is when Dr. King converged America’s destiny with the destiny of the Negro declaring, “Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.” (p. 817). Dr. King often transitions from one idea to another in a thought provoking way through asking rhetorical questions such as, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” (p. 817). His use of rhetorical questions was also used to “talk” to his audience taking them on a journey of sorts to draw conclusions, “But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future… We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” (p. 817). Antitheses, parallelism and rhetorical questions are elements of efficient writing.
Heartfelt passion and desperation towards the topic through lengthy anaphoric type sentences and dismal metaphors added another side to Dr. King’s efficient writing. Dark, visual metaphors were strewn across his letter such as, “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue,” and “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.” Descriptive visuals such as these, express Dr. King’s own perception of the horrendous despair the negroes experienced. Thus, in parts of his letter, King would allow his desperation to spiral out in long anaphoric sentences such as, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers […]; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse […]; when you see the vast majority […]; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted […]” (p. 809) which emphasized King’s desperate tone and purpose of writing the response. Allowing himself to become vulnerable and express his own personal feelings the reader is able to perceive Dr. King as a more genuine, and authentic person, thus absorbing and caring what he has to say.
Dr. King used organization of points, rhetorical devices, and compelling statements to persuade his audience – the said eight clergymen – of the good his strategy of nonviolent protest towards racism is. Dr. King established an efficient writing style in the way he created a symmetrical balance between having a well-organized argument of thoughts and yet letting his personal feelings and passion heightened his argument making it all the more compelling. A good take away from this would be that you do not need to rely on only one type of persuasion tactic to influence your audience. A combination of more than one persuasive style can be even more so effective.