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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Martin Luther King's strategies and use of imagery to combat racism in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."


In "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. employs nonviolent resistance and powerful imagery to combat racism. He uses metaphors and vivid descriptions to illustrate the harsh realities of segregation and the moral imperative for justice. His strategies include appealing to shared values and highlighting the urgency of direct action to dismantle systemic oppression.

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

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

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

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 Martin Luther King use imagery 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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How does Martin Luther King Jr. combat racism in Letter from Birmingham City Jail?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote what we now know as "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" as a response to eight religious leaders (white men) who were expressing concern about the nonviolent protests Dr. King was leading. Dr. King was imprisoned in Birmingham because of his participation in the protests. In this letter, Dr. King combats racism in many ways. 

The first way he combats racism is to address it and call it what it is. Dr. King was far from being politically correct! He was bold to call the treatment of black citizens unjust, and he spoke the truth that others wanted to deny. 

I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative. IN ANY nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. 

Dr. King pulls no punches. He is in Birmingham because racism is there, and his purpose is to stand against injustice in all its forms. 

Another way Dr. King combated racism was by breaking laws. This is sometimes called civil disobedience. In his letter he gives his rationale for doing this: 

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all." Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

King gives a further illustration of just and unjust laws in this letter. He reminded his readers that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust was legal and that everything the Hungarian Freedom Fighters did to combat Hitler was illegal. 

Dr. King combats racism by calling on Christians, who are united in Christ, to come together for the cause of combating injustice. He speaks about his disappointment in the religious leaders and white community of believers because they have not stood with their black brothers and sisters in fighting injustice. 

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Dr. King also talks about being an extremist, which he at first resisted but then embraced. He is an extremist because he is willing to do whatever it takes to gain equality for the people he is leading. This is another way he combats racism—his passionate commitment to his cause. His commitment was unwavering in the face of opposition, threats, setbacks, and discouragement.

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What strategies did Martin Luther King Jr. use in "Letter From Birmingham Jail"?

King employs multiple strategies to communicate his argument in "Letter from Birmingham Jail." However, one particular approach stands out overall because it allows him to fluctuate his tone, reach multiple audiences, and earn the reader's sympathy with personal anecdote and concrete detail. King masterfully exploits the "letter form" to maximize his goals.

Letters are meant to be personal. They stress the immediate needs of the speaker and also emphasize the location of sender and recipient. They also operate under the pretense of intimacy. King writes the letter as if it is really correspondence between a group of clergymen though he knows full well it will reach an audience larger than that.

The letter form reminds us that he is in jail while dispelling the stereotype of the uneducated black man. He makes countless references to American history and quotes directly from the Bible, as well as to the work of many philosophers. It tempts the reader to ask, how can a man this astute be languishing in a jail cell for parading without a permit?

Additionally, the letter form allows for tangents and everyday concrete details, as well as encourages a polite and formal tone. One of the most moving passages in this piece involves King's daughter who tears up because she can't go to the water park she has seen on TV:

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[...].

This deviation from his argument which is teeming with pathos is only possible given our assumptions about the letter form. Such a tangent would not be effective in an essay or manifesto.

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What strategies did Martin Luther King Jr. use in "Letter From Birmingham Jail"?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a masterpiece containing rhetorical strategies almost too numerous to identify and analyze.  Here are just four:

Early in the letter, King uses refutation when he addresses being called an "outside agitator" by the Birmingham authorities.  King asserts that "anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."  With regard to oppression based on race, King does not see geographic boundaries in the United States.

King also uses concession when he asks the rhetorical question, "Isn't negotiation a better path?" This is something his opponents might ask, and he then answers, "You are quite right in calling for negotiation." King emphasizes that he and his supporters prefer nonviolence in addressing the institutionalized racism that plagues the country.

King uses a metaphor to contrast the social and political backwardness of the United States with the progressiveness of other nations when he writes "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." This is also an appeal to pathos; the United States looks pathetic in its inability to recognize its citizens' essential humanity.

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How does "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" combat racism?

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King combats racism by championing the cause of nonviolent resistance, equating different groups of people with one another rather than separating them, and calling people to action who have remained silent out of a desire for social order.

When King was imprisoned in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote this letter in response to critics who said that issues of racism and segregation should be fought in the courts rather than in the streets. These critics were specifically eight white clergymen who wrote an article in the local newspaper titled "A Call for Unity." King used his platform as both a minister and Civil Rights leader to champion the cause of nonviolent resistance.

To understand King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," one first has to understand exactly what nonviolent resistance was to King.

Nonviolent resistance is, according to King, "a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love." It can also be defined as protesting through nonviolent means like symbolic protests, disobedience to unjust laws, economic noncooperation, and other forms without violence. King became interested in it after reading Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience" while he was in college.

When people criticized the methods that people in the Civil Rights movement used to protest segregation and racism, they meant that those problems would be taken care of within the law. They believed it was unnecessary to do things like sit in at lunch counters, refuse to give up a seat on the bus, or not cooperate with other unjust laws. They felt that it widened the divide and created more chaos.

King disagreed. In his letter, he argued that it was not only necessary but also right to practice nonviolent resistance. 

For King, there were six parts that defined nonviolent resistance. They are:

  • A person can resist evil without using violence.
  • Nonviolent resistance wants to gain friendship and understanding from their opponents.
  • Evil as a concept—not the people doing the evil acts—was what they were resisting.
  • Nonviolent protesters had to be willing to suffer without retaliation; King believed suffering could be redemptive.
  • Protesters had to avoid both internal and external violence. It was important for protesters to refuse to hate their opponents.
  • Protesters had to have faith in the future and believe that the universe is on the side of justice. 

So that's the concept he was championing in his letter.

One way that King combats racism is to make it clear that he sees all people as the same. He states that he isn't there to create trouble but rather to fight for a better world for everyone. He's standing up to the idea of himself and his cohorts as outsiders who came to create dissension when he writes,

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Next, King makes a distinction between just and unjust laws. This helps combat racism by making the unfair and negative intentions of the laws he and his group were protesting clear. He says that just laws uphold human dignity, while unjust laws degrade it. He says that they hurt both the oppressed and the oppressors. Again, he is grouping people into a single group instead of letting the boundaries of race remain.

As an example, King discusses segregation. He says that the law isn't democratic because Alabama denies black people the right to participate in the democracy. He argues that laws are created specifically to uphold segregation—like the law that banned parading without a permit, for which he was jailed. King says that he is willing to pay the price for breaking that law.

He also combats racism in his letter by using examples to show his meanings and get his point across. For example, he compares segregation and its dependence on law to the laws of Nazi Germany that allowed for Jewish persecution. He explains that those were laws he, too, would have been willing to break.

Much of his letter from that point is a call to action for church people and white moderates. King explains:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

He goes on to say that the entire purpose of law and order is to create justice and uphold it. Therefore, their failure to do so is dangerous and damaging. He feels that white moderates and people of the church fail to realize this—but still can. He says that they can expose injustice to "the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion." 

Throughout the letter, King keeps his tone polite and makes a point to appeal to both logic and emotion, citing both historical precedents and the feelings of his young daughter, who cannot go places because she's black. In this way, too, he makes a connection with readers who might otherwise be disinclined to even consider his words.

The letter was signed: "Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr."

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