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

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Christian theme of the "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" lends itself readily to the use of anaphora. This is almost certainly why King uses it here, as he also does in his famous "I have a dream" speech. Anaphora is one of the very oldest literary devices, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greeks. It is also frequently used in the Bible, as in the following example from Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 (KJV):

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

The dominant theme of the "Letter" is King's criticism of white Southern clergyman for opposing the Civil Rights Movement's engagement in public protest and direct action. King reminds these men of their duty as Christians to stand up and fight against blatant examples of injustice and repression. There is a higher moral law, one that transcends the unjust laws of men, and the laws on segregation are a prime example of such legalized injustice.

Using anaphora allows King to establish his argument on the firm basis of Christian tradition. The word anaphora literally means "carrying back," and by using this age-old rhetorical trope, King is attempting to carry the white Southern clergymen back to their duty as Christians, to get them to see that the civil rights struggle is their struggle too, one they must join instead of criticizing from the sidelines:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

But perhaps the white clergymen are incapable of seeing the bigger picture, of seeing the necessity of challenging the established order of things:

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.

King is using anaphora in this excerpt to establish a link between the Civil Rights Movement and the church invisible, to establish a significant degree of historical and spiritual continuity between the movement he leads and the true Christian community residing within the hearts of men and women the world over. This community of the soul represents in the Christian tradition an ideal of which the various churches are measured and so often found wanting. And that's what King is attempting to do here.

The established Christian churches have singularly failed in their duty to do what's right, to stand against injustice and racial prejudice. That being the case, perhaps the Civil Rights movement should turn away from organized religion and instead place its trust in the community of the inner spirit. In rejecting the stance of the white Southern clergymen, King goes some way towards providing a withering critique of organized religion and its manifest failures in fulfilling the Word of God.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.



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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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