How might one describe the significance of anaphora in Martin Luther King's essay titled "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Anaphora – repetition of a word or words at the beginnings of successive lines, clauses, phrases, etc. – is used very effectively in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous essay “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” The letter, which explains why King decided to protest racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, begins by patiently and rationally presenting King’s reasons in great detail. A rhetorical highpoint of the essay, however, occurs when King suddenly launches into an extremely long sentence marked by heavy use of anaphor.  That sentence, which emphasizes the various kinds of discrimination to which blacks have been subjected, begins as follows:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer . . . [emphasis added]

This sentence, which continues for another 157 words, and which contains 316 words altogether, is extremely powerful for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • It catches us by surprise. Nothing in the calm, reasonable, patient opening portion of the essay quite prepares us for this outburst of strong emotion.
  • It is relentlessly detailed: rather than speaking in abstractions, King gives one specific example after another of the particular kinds of discrimination he has in mind.
  • It seems to go on forever, as if he could continue piling still more examples on top of all the other examples he has already given.
  • It implies and demonstrates strong emotion and thus helps suggest how much emotion King and others like him have had to restrain, over the years, in order to keep their movement non-violent.
  • It has a ceaseless, relentless rhythm, as if one wave after another were crashing onto a beach, with more still on the way.
  • By emphasizing the word “you,” it puts readers in the place of the blacks who have suffered such discrimination; it forces readers, again and again, to try to imagine how they might be tempted to respond if they were similarly provoked.
  • It gives this passage a kind of memorable, indeed unforgettable music, so that it sticks in our minds not simply because of its content but also because of its form.