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"?

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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 auditory image 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." The visual 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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