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Martin Luther King. Speaks of “Letter from Birmingham jail”

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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 are commonly accepted by many. The audience will accept the knowledge of such prestigious people, as those King spoke of. The reader is reminded of the passion and intensity of each of those historical figures, further supporting King’s argument. The reader envisions that King is doing good for humanity, such as the individuals that King describes did in the past. King consecutively uses the words ‘was not’ and ‘extremist’ to parallel his situation with those distinguished individuals who promoted and advocated change in earlier times.

Not only does King use anaphoras and epistrophe, but he also uses descriptive phrases such as ‘rabble-rouser'(29.351) and ‘sweltering summer'(38.353). These words utilize alliteration as a device to contribute to the special effects and the intensity of his prose. The reader envisions marches on scorchingly hot summer days, not merely warm Southern afternoons. ‘Rabble-rouser'(29.351) calls forth loud, noisy mobs rather than peaceful, sedate crowds engaged in rallies, sit-ins, and marches.

‘But what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?'(48.356) describes King’s days of incarceration. Using the same grammatical structure repeatedly allows the reader to see the relationship of letters, thoughts, and prayers. This parallelism portrays the image of King, thinking, writing, and praying alone in his jail cell. This conception of a man, consumed with zealous passion for his belief in equal rights for all, moves the reader further toward King’s assertions.

Furthermore,’My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest'(47.356) is an antithesis that produces the effect of connecting dissimilar, yet related topics. He clarifies the feelings prevalent of many Negro Southerners at that time in history. While physically very weary, their intense desire to overcome oppression prevails

One day all will remember and respect those persons, negro and white, who stood up for what is best in the American Dream. Judeo-Christian values sacred to these Negro Southerners were the cornerstones of their commitment for freedom and democracy for all. Martin Luther King, as well as all Negroes who suffered and endured affliction, will be revered for bringing our nation back to the ideals of democracy which were established by our founding fathers in their formation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

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