Per 3A.P. English
King’s Works: An Analysis Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest speakers for the Black civil rights movement, had written many great works in his time. Two of his pieces stand out as his greatest works, Letter from Birmingham City Jail; a letter written from a jail in Birmingham where he was arrested for demonstrating peacefully, to clergymen who didn’t agree with his views, and I Have a Dream; a speech given by King in front of the Washington Memorial at a huge civil rights tea party. Both works convey the same message: the time has come where Black Americans will not stand for civil injustices any longer. The way in which the works are written, however, are different, for one is a letter, to be read by a few, and the other is a speech, to be heard by many.
A Letter from Birmingham City Jail is exactly that; it is a letter King wrote to a group of clergy members who disapproved of his actions in Birmingham City. The fact that this is a letter is blatantly apparent right from the beginning, King’s use of first person clearly defines it as him talking to the clergy members, not a convention, or a rally, nothing general.
In his first paragraph, King establishes why he is in Birmingham, however, he is not clear, as he states, “. . . he, along with several members of his staff, are there because he was invited there. He is here because he has organizational ties there.”. In other words, he was there because what he does brought him here, kind of like a job.
In the second paragraph, he becomes crystal clear, by stating that he is ” . . . in Birmingham because injustice is there.”. Not only does he present why he is there, but he justifies it by alluding to biblical characters such as “the Apostle Paul”, and “Paul” who did the same. Not only is this a show of intellect, but it is as well an appeal to the senses of his audience, for they are, after all, clergymen, and he has justified his actions on their terms.
By the fifth paragraph, he has stopped trying to use rhetorical devices, and is well into stating the cold hard facts about the injustice of Birmingham. He states facts that were obvious to his audience, but they were unwilling to admit to themselves. Amongst them were the fact that “Birmingham was probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”, and that “Its ugly record of brutality was widely known.” Not only that, but that “Negroes had experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There had been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.”.These are the main point of the letter, the injustices that King is trying to get rid of.
He goes on to explain how he could understand how they might be upset their ” . . . willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.”. By saying so, he has express a concern that he really does care about what they think. So, he goes on to explain that ” . . . there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” He also explains that he ” . . . would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”. The use of antithesis works to accentuate his statement, and then, he not only states it as his own, but “. . . agrees with St. Augustine that ‘ an unjust law is no law at all'”. Making this biblical reference not only proves that his views are shared by others, but that they were in the bible, shared by a saint.
After much explanation and re-iteration, King starts getting simple, and switches from the abstract to the concrete, giving examples of what he is trying to get across; this is almost insulting, but King wants to make sure to get his point across. He speaks of a law being ” . . . unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.” Just in case this is still too abstract, he gives an actual real event, asking “Who can say that the legislation of Alabama which set up the state’s segregation laws was democratically elected?”. The use of this statement as a rhetorical question amplifies its potence, because it begs for an answer; a simple statement would have proven to be too offensive, making King look like the villain. In the paragraph after that, he becomes blunt saying; “I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out.” He clearly wants to make sure that they comprehend this, but at this point it is insulting; King fails to see how they failed to see. He ends this part of his argument by stating that “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”. He trying to show that when a person breaks an unjust law, it will be to show the world that it is unjust, not to simply break it and try to get away with it.
Last, he starts using their words against them, and that he was ” initially disappointed as being categorized as an extremist,”. However, as he continued to think about it, he ” . . . gradually gained a satisfaction from the label.”. He then goes on to compare himself to a number of biblical characters who were extremists, “Jesus”, who was 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.'”. He also compares himself to “Amos”, “Paul”, and even characters that were not from the bible, such as “Martin Luther”, “John Bunyan, “Abraham Lincoln”, and many more. The point is, that he is not trying to impress the clergymen with his biblical references anymore, he has gone on to include them, and historical allusions, showing how it has been since the beginning of time.
By now, the clergymen may have their eyes wide open, but their wounds must be just as wide; they feel pretty insulted. To make sure that there are no hard feelings, he states; “I hope that this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you not as an integrationist or a civil right leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian Brother.”. I doubt this is in a sarcastic tone, for upsetting is probably the last thing King wants to do, so, he probably means it. This of course, is strong, because it clearly identifies him as being the extreme philanthropist, he is portrayed as the good man he is.
In his speech, I Have a Dream, King starts by making a subtle but powerful allusion to the Gettysburg Address, when he says, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”. Not only does King start his speech the same way Lincoln did, by using the word score to keep track of years, but he also referred to him and the Emancipation Proclamation; both of which are clear symbols of the civil rights movement. However, after placing the Emancipation Proclamation on a pedestal, he knocks it down with his second paragraph, where he clearly makes an offensive on Lincoln and his proclamation, by starting it with the phrase, ” But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.” . Once again, not only does the sentence serve its purpose in its words, but in its rhetoric; King clearly states that the Negro is still not free, but he also insults the Gettysburg Address when he says one hundred years, for as he used five score to raise up the Gettysburg Address, he used one hundred years to knock it down. It all works even better taking into consideration that I Have a Dream is a speech, and so was the Gettysburg Address, and with all this, King immediately has his audience in his grasp, for he has appealed to them in both the political sense, in that he has satisfied what the crowd wants to hear, and rhetorically, in making what the crowd wants to hear more pleasing to them.
In the third and fourth paragraph, King uses an extended metaphor to appeal to the crowd even more, he states that :
In a sense they have come their nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the . . . Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
He justifies to this mass of people why they have gathered here, but by using a metaphor, he appeals to their auditory senses, metaphors are euphonious, they please the ear. However, in the fourth paragraph he makes it ” . . . obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has been marked ‘ insufficient funds.'”. Just like in the first and second paragraph, he lifts up, and then brings down; what was once great, is revealed as small. He wants to show that what the nation promised would have been great if the nation had come through with it.
King’s last and most prominent rhetorical device is that of parallel construction. The assertion of an idea becomes more powerful with its repetition. In many a paragraph he will use a phrase that is repeated time and again in the paragraph. In paragraph two, for example, he makes clear that “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled . . . . One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island . . . . One hundred years later, the Negro still languishes in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”. King could have easily said that one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is in a sorry state, but by the use of parallel construction, he has asserted that ” Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from, the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of the opportunity to all of God’s children.”, not just time to reach racial justice.
Another way he employs parallel construction is by making small essays of five or six sentences, inside his speech. An example of this is when King states that:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘when will you be satisfied?’
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as lon