Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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How does Martin Luther King use imagery in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

King uses figurative language to enhance his letter. Some examples of figurative language are allusion, analogy, and vivid metaphors.

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Throughout the letter, King oscillates between high imagery—imagery relating to that which is above us—and low imagery, which deals with what is below us. For instance, we have references to the "dark depths of prejudice" and the "majestic heights of understanding" in the very same paragraph. Here, King is mapping out a clear trajectory that he believes the addressees of the letter should follow.

Later on, we have another striking juxtaposition of high and low imagery, when King argues that we should lift our national policy "from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity." In using high and low imagery like this, King wants the white clergymen to whom he's addressing the letter to face up to the grim realities of the current situation while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the brighter future that lies in store if they have the courage to join with the civil rights movement in taking on the evil of racism.

What he wants most of all—and once again, he uses a combination of high and low imagery to drive home the point—is for the white clergymen to follow the example of "bruised and weary Negro men and women" and "rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest."

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Early in the letter, Dr. King explains his presence in Alabama and why he has come from Atlanta, Georgia, to Birmingham to assist in the fight against injustices there. He explains that he is not an outsider; in fact, he says, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." While this is a metaphor, comparing the relationship between Dr. King and the clergy to whom he speaks to an item of clothing, or a piece of cloth into which they are all interwoven, this also creates a visual image of the "garment."

Dr. King continues, explaining the need for "nonviolent gadflies," actions which would, like gadflies, pester and buzz, prompting social change via good-faith negotiation (another metaphor). The use of this phrase conjures a visual image of the flies themselves, and perhaps even an auditoryimage too—their buzzing is "nonviolent" but irritating enough to provoke some response. Further, he hopes that the tension created by the catalyst of nonviolent protest "will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." These visual images might compel someone who implicitly condones prejudice by failing to work against it to actually begin the hard work of climbing from the "shadow" up into the light. We might imagine the visual image of a mountain: prejudice lies in the shadow, and "understanding and brotherhood" await at the peak.

Dr. King also says that "The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."...

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Thevisual images of a speeding jet versus a much slower horse and buggy are easy to picture. He draws attention to how slow racial progress is in America in a way that makes the country seem technologically behind the times, a comparison that white Americans might more easily understand.

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Imagery is a form of figurative language in which an author or speaker uses words and phrases to create mental pictures in the minds of the reader or audience. Mental pictures are created by using words related to the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King effectively uses imagery to capture the injustices his people are suffering.In his letter, King is addressing a letter written by eight Birmingham clergyman, published in the Birmingham Post Herald. In their public letter, without directly using King's name, the clergymen protested against King's demonstrations being launched in Birmingham, and though the clergymen were against segregation, they were also in favor of patiently waiting for justice to be served. In his letter, King uses a sound image to protest against the idea of waiting for justice in order to promote active peaceful protest:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Here, in describing the word wait as a piercing, ringing sound, like an alarm bell, King is creating a sound image to relay how agonizing the word wait has become for African Americans. We know it is a sound image because we can literally hear the word wait being spoken by a person, and we can hear a piercing ringing sound, like an alarm bell. King uses this sound image to assert that now is the time for the African-American people to fight for justice.Sight images are also found in the next paragraph that capture the extent of the injustices the African-American people suffer, such as in the following clauses: "vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will"; "when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sister"; "twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty." All of these are things we can actually see, so we know they count as sight images.

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How does King use figurative language in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

Figurative language enhances literal language to add value and interest to a piece of writing.

King uses allusion and analogy when he writes the following:

... just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.

Allusion is a reference to history or to another work of literature. King strengthens his case for his involvement in Birmingham by likening himself to Paul, a figure likely to be highly respected by the group of pastors to whom he is writing. King positions himself as analogous to Paul. He is doing the same Christian work of carrying the gospel out into the word. This enhances King's stature and makes it hard to attack his actions.

In the quotes below, King uses adjectives to enhance and amplify the way Birmingham has mistreated its black community by adding the words "ugly" and "grossly" to his sentences below:

Its [Birmingham's] ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts.

King uses metaphors below. Metaphors are comparisons that don't use the words like or as. In the first instance, King compares what has been done to black hopes to something having been physically blasted to pieces, perhaps with dynamite. In the second, he compares believing in myths and half truths to being physically bound up and restricted:

our hopes had been blasted

the bondage of myths and half truths

King uses vivid visual metaphors below, contrasting the "jetlike" speed of change on other continents to the "horse and buggy pace" of progress in the United States. A "touch" metaphor helps readers feel that segregation stings like being hit with darts in the second sentence below:

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."

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