Letter from Birmingham City Jail Cover Image

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Student Question

Which word best describes the closing paragraphs (45-47) of the letter: sarcastic, conciliatory, reproachful, or apologetic?

Expert Answers

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The final paragraphs of King's letter are not sarcastic or reproachful. If they were sarcastic they would be saying the opposite of what they mean in a jeering way, but King's tone is sincere and respectful. If they were reproachful, they would criticize and blame King's opponents; these do not. At other points in the letter, King does reproach the clergymen to whom he writes the letter for contributing to the cause of racism. He does not do this here.

That leaves us with apologetic and conciliatory. King does use the phrase "forgive me" twice in this final section, which could lead us to believe his tone is apologetic. There is a note of apology too in his mentioning of the hardships of being in a prison cell—he may not have written as well as he otherwise would have—but he justifies that more than apologizes for it. Overall, his final tone is conciliatory.

A conciliatory tone is one that extends a hand of friendship and good will after a harsh moment. King has delivered a blistering critique of his fellow clergy in earlier parts of the letter. Now he is coming back to the idea that they are all friends with common interests. When he says "forgive me," he is not admitting to wrongdoing. He is saying that "if" he did wrong—which he does not think he has—he asks for their forgiveness and God's. This is obligatory humility.

Primarily, he is conciliatory, such as when he says:

I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.

He is an equal and implies he will meet them as a "brother" and equal, neither apologizing or reproaching.

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