Letter from Birmingham Jail

16Sep12

It’s sad to say that I do not know very much about the civil rights movement.  I admit that I cannot even name what decade it took place in.  But I do know of Martin Luther King Jr. and I do know of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which must be familiar to almost anyone.  Before reading it, I expected the Letter from Birmingham Jail to be a piece of inspiring anti-segregation, pro-equality rhetoric.  I expected to read the fiery Martin Luther King Jr. of the “I Have a Dream” speech, which was the only impression I really had of him.  After reading Letter from Birmingham Jail I was satisfyingly suprised to have discovered another dimension of this historical figure I knew so little of.  I learned that King was a man of much grace and poise.

To start, the introduction of the Letter was very appropriate for what King had to say.  He introduced himself and his purpose with a calm and civil tone, which set the scene for the rest of the letter.  “I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms,” he says and proceeds to do so.  This tone, I thought, said much about King as a person.  He could have responded to the clergymen in anger, accusing them of being wrong for criticizing King. His words could have been meant to shame the clergymen or discredit them.  Instead King  chooses to open with civility and respect, a sign that he will address his audience eye-to-eye.

One think King talked about that I was interested in were the four steps of nonviolent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”  This was enlightening to me because it depicted the general mechanics of the civil rights movement.  As King explained the various steps, the system made sense to me more and more.  I could not see how anyone could find fault in it.  It is a good appeal to logos.

Perhaps the most powerful section of the Letter, the listing of “When you have…” experiences when being told to “wait” had a profound effect on me.  It starts out with a pattern of experiences that could have happened to any oppressed African American at the time.  When it gets personal to King himself, however, it becomes even more powerful.  We know that King has seen his own daughter cry when told she’s not allowed in Funtown.  We know that King’s son has asked him, “Daddy, why to white people treat colored people so mean?”  This is a strong example of King putting himself into his rhetoric.

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