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Injustice Anywhere…Analyze the rhetorical strategies of
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
In a 2-3-page essay, note and explain some of the rhetorical strategies of King’s “Letter.” Be sure to
categorize techniques not only according to whether they make up a logos, ethos, or pathos rhetorical
strategy, but more specifically what kind of strategy. For instance, you might explain that MLK is
trying to make an appeal to pity or establish his credibility as a compassionate person. More
importantly, you need to describe what is the specific purpose behind the strategy. I’d expect there to
be around 5 major body paragraphs of analysis. Obviously, try to find a balance between logos, ethos,
pathos and make sure to both quote the elements you’re talking about and to include a section of
commentary about those elements. Avoid extremely obvious points of analysis (“King uses references
to religious figures because he is talking to clergymen.”). Look for less obvious, more penetrating
connections that add to the understanding of the rhetorical strategies. Look for places that illustrate a
rhetorical strategy that one would not notice unless one were very, very smart. Like you, for instance.
Extra credit assignment: Those looking for more credit to offset regrettable performance on past tests
can add 2-3 paragraphs that compare and contrast strategies that King use in “Letter” with those used
by Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience.” In these paragraphs, your purpose is to note either similarities to
show how using the same strategy work even if the purpose is different, or differences in order to note
why a change in tactics is important because of a differing purpose, situation, audience, or persuasive
Common Paragraph formatting:
Topic Sentence
Setting up the context of a quote and its type of strategy
The quote
The commentary: explaining the purpose of the strategy and the thinking behind it as well as
its effectiveness. Connect to other aspects of the Letter.
Annotated version of Letter with helpful commentary on historical allusions
The Silva Rhetoricae: An exhaustive compendium of rhetorical figure and strategies
The Figaro figures: A much more accessible list and set of examples for common rhetorical figures
American Rhetoric: An audio database of rhetorical strategies as well as great speeches made by
Compare and Contrast Essays: The Guide to Grammar and Writing Way…or the Book Rags way.
Or…there is always Wikipedia!
40 points
40 points
Strong use of evidence (quoting, specific examples)
Incisive and meaningful analysis of strategies.
20 points
Clear organization (Did you follow the structure)
100 points
Sample student’s work
Martin Luther King Jr. is honored today because, simply put, he redefined the values of a
nation. The way people thought about themselves, about others, and about the tenets of their own
lives and of the government by which they were ruled, was irrevocably reevaluated and transformed.
This paradigm shift was necessary to achieve eventual equality, for no significant change could have
been gained without first changing the minds of those opposing desegregation. In Letter from a
Birmingham Jail, King applies this same concept to his open letter. Writing to a community that holds
an ingrained opposition to his actions and ideas, King has to redefine such basic concepts as a law,
religion, and extremism. In doing so, he also redefines himself and the movement he champions.
One of the first places King displays this ability is when he discusses the difference between a
just and unjust law. King must acknowledge that he breaks the law and encourages others to do so,
but must do this is in a way that shows he is still a rational and morally upstanding individual. In
order to do this he differentiates between a just and unjust law, therefore altering his audience’s
original interpretation of a law. King says, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law
that degrades human personality is unjust.” Here, King defines a law to be not just a legal code, but a
moral one as well. While his process for differentiating between just and unjust laws is logical and
clear, perhaps a more important piece is the emotional appeal to morality. This ethical side makes it
very difficult to disagree with King. One could no longer ask another person to follow a law that
supports segregation without revealing a lack of moral consciousness. By changing the definition of a
law, King turns the illegal and “wrong” act of breaking a law into something necessary, a moral
obligation, and in fact the only honorable option.
Breaking laws is only one part of the criticism against Martin Luther King, however. He is also
accused of being an extremist, which like breaking laws has a clear negative connotation. Here is
another allegation that King must refute, and he again does this by interpreting extremism in a new
way: “Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."…
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” As
before, King differentiates between two kinds of extremists and aligns himself with the morally
correct kind. The examples of “extremists” that he uses all show passion for things closely related to
himself: love for all mankind, even those that oppose you, justice, Christianity, equality, and even
eradication of slavery. Each “extremist” is also a person highly respected not only by the clergymen of
his audience but also by much of society, and their causes are all positive and embraced almost
unanimously. King changes extremism to include respected people with respectable causes, and by
linking himself so closely too them, becomes one of them.
Though Letter from a Birmingham Jail is an open letter, it is directly addressed to clergymen.
Therefore, King is making a bold statement when he criticizes the contemporary church. Towards the
end of his letter, King expresses his disappointment in the church by distinguishing between the old
and the modern, and through this holds his audience to a higher expectation. He says, “In those days
the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion;
it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… So often the contemporary church is a
weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.”
Again we see King redefining religion and the church in terms of what is morally good and right and
what is not. Though he never says it directly, King is showing that he views the actions of his
audience, the clergymen, as “weak” and “ineffectual,” only holding up the “status quo.” He is
disappointed not just with the church in general but with the very people he is speaking with, and in
this way shows them his expectations. While revealing their actions to be unethical and weak, he also
states an expectation for them to change their ways.
In the face of a society that disagreed with and even condemned his ways, Martin Luther King
Jr. had to shift the perspectives of his audience in order to convince them he was in the right. To do
this in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King redefines both his own actions and the actions of those
opposing him so that they are in his favor. Instead of breaking laws, he is following a moral code
against an unjust decree. Extremism becomes a passion for what is honorable. The white, modern
church that does nothing against segregation becomes an institution “blemished and
scarred…through fear of being nonconformists.” In doing this he does not only redefine words or
concepts, however. He effectually redefines himself and the civil rights movement as a whole, showing
it to be the only path leading towards morality.