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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Student Question

How does Martin Luther King Jr. use anaphora to emphasize "power" in "Letter from Birmingham Jail"?

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: .... Was not Amos an extremist for justice: .... Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: .... Was not Martin Luther an extremist: .... And Abraham Lincoln: .... And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.

Expert Answers

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  • anaphora: Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines. (Silva Rhetoricae. rhetoric.byu.edu)

Your first task is to note how King does or does not (1) connect the act of repetition with an expression of power and does or does not (2) connect anaphora with power. [There are of course several kinds of rhetorical repetition, epistrophe is another, and is one that King also uses in these same quoted lines.]

  • epistrophe: Ending a series of lines, phrases, clauses, or sentences with the same word or words. (Silva Rhetoricae. rhetoric.byu.edu)

In order to accomplish your task, you must understand what King's message in this quoted passage is. It would seem to be that power is required for social reform and that power is taken to be extremism by those opposing social reform. To make his point, King references some of the most powerful, extremist reformers of all time, beginning with the Prophet Amos and ending with Thomas Jefferson.

[It is interesting that King does not list these extremists in chronological order but rather begins with Jesus, who came after Amos, and ends with Jefferson, who came before Abraham Lincoln; he uses an order of rhetorical importance (which might tie into your topic of power).]

To find your thesis, which no one can find for you, you will have to consider all these details and find what you think the relationship between them is. You might find that you can tie in the epistrophe repetition as well to elaborate upon or to confirm your idea of how anaphora and power relate to each other in this quotation from King's speech.

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Anaphora, referencing back to something over and over again, is useful in giving a kind of persuasive rhythm to a speech.  King often uses this technique.  It is like listening to a good Southern preacher.  It rises and falls.  It builds up.  It also adds emphasis.

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Your question was a little confusing, but let's discuss your topic.  Much analysis and criticism has been written on Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." In fact, eNotes has a great Masterplots analysis page (which I hyperlinked) on his speech which could prove extremely helpful in your analysis.  King uses anaphora, which is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive sentences, lines, or paragraphs, multiple times throughout his letter.  You mentioned his use of "was not," but you should aslo consider the section of the letter in which he repeats the phrase "when you have seen," which is an extremely powerful and detailed moment in King's rhetoric. 

Your thesis for King's use of anaphora could analyze King's reasons for using anaphora as a rhetorical device.  For example:  Martin Luther King Jr.'s utilizes anaphora in his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as a powerful rhetorical device to build cadence and rhythm, emphasizing the power of experience in understanding the human condition.

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