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Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Rhetorical strategies and examples used by Martin Luther King in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."


In "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. uses rhetorical strategies such as ethos, pathos, and logos. He establishes his credibility (ethos) by referencing his role as a leader and his non-violent philosophy, appeals to emotions (pathos) by illustrating the struggles of African Americans, and uses logical arguments (logos) to highlight the injustices of segregation and the urgency for civil rights reform.

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What rhetorical strategies does Martin Luther King use in paragraph 25 of "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

This work is a modern masterpiece and what makes it extra poignant is that it took place within the lifetime of many of us. Let me offer a few rhetorical strategies that Martin Luther King uses.

First, he uses the subjunctive mood or uses the idea of potentiality. This gives an opened ended feel to the whole paragraph. If you notice, he uses the word "perhaps" two times right in the beginning. This strategy allow him to say that there has been gains, but that these gains are not enough. Perhaps he has been too hopeful. In particular, he points out that white moderates are not doing enough.

Second, he also gives a few concrete examples of white who have stood by him and the movement to create equality. In rhetorical terms he has given an "exemplum," or an example. In other words, he is giving a model for people to follow. He writes:

"Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as 'dirty nigger-lovers.'"

Third, he specifically points out that he has been disappointed with the white leadership in the church. By doing this, he shows the hypocrisy of the church, because if the church is called to love the way God loves, then they should be in the forefront of fighting injustice.

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In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," what rhetorical examples does Martin Luther King use in his response?

King uses three other devices very effectively in his letter: biblical comparisons, rhetorical questions, and allusions. 

A simile is the comparison of one thing to another thing that is not specifically like it, but which shares a quality in kind. Biblical stories are helpful here, not only for their familiarity to the eight white Southern religious leaders whom King addresses, but also to help these religious leaders better identify with a struggle that may make little sense to them.

King compares himself to "eighth-century prophets [who] left their little villages" and Paul, who "left his little village of Tarsus [to carry] the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world." He makes this comparison to address their concern about King—a perceived outsider—coming into Birmingham from Atlanta to agitate for the cause of civil rights. In making this comparison, he likens the importance of his message to the importance of Christ's teachings—for, the equal treatment of all is, in King's estimation, a Christian message.

A rhetorical question is a question that is asked without any expectation of receiving an answer. The question may or may not have an answer. Here, King assumes what the religious leaders may have been thinking: "Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" He then answers the question with an explanation of his strategy. Yet, his explanation is less sequential and technical than it is emotional and metaphorical. He explains the need to create "tension" and "dramatize the issue." He believes that, without producing such an emotive effect, a routinely ignored community can never make a strong, public impact.

In some passages, he uses a lot of figurative language. He compares the civil rights workers to Socrates and "non-violent gadflies," who create the tension that will help the South rise "from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." Here, King uses dualistic imagery to show the contrast: the dark, low evils of "prejudice and racism" are pitted against the "majestic heights of understanding." This is also an allusion to Heaven and Hell. 

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In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," what rhetorical examples does Martin Luther King use in his response?

King's primary rhetorical technique in "A Letter from Birmingham Jail," a characteristic of much of his writing, is the highly creative use of metaphorical language to make an abstract concept into a concrete, easily visualized, image in his reader's mind.  For example, he uses the phrase "dangerously structured dams" in paragraph 24 to describe the abstract concept of law and order's failure to establish justice.  Likewise, he equates the tension created by racial injustice to a "boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up. . . ," arguing that it must be lanced so that "air and light" (conscience and national opinion) can cure it, not a pretty metaphor, to be sure, but a very appropriate comparison and very visual.

Another characteristic rhetorical device used by King to good effect is anaphora, the repetition of key words and phrases.  We see this device in paragraph 25 as King argues that condemning non-violent protests "because they precipitate violence" is like condemning the victim of robbery because he possesses money.  King begins three sentences, each of which contains an example supporting his overall argument,w ith the phrase, "Isn't this like condemning. . . ."  These balanced sentences, using identical diction (words) and diction (sentence structure), carry King's argument effectively forward because they each contain separate, but identical, examples that validate his argument.

King uses anaphora again in paragraph 26 when repeats the opening phrase he used in paragraph 24--"I had hoped" and "I had also hoped"--an effective technique for unifying thes paragraphs whose subject is his disappointment with the "white moderate."  In addition, by using the word "hoped," he is reminding his audience that he is very disappointed at the response from those whom he thought would be his greatest allies, and he is gently reminding them that his hope in their support is almost gone.  This is his way of encouraging them to renew their efforts on behalf of the Negro cause without demanding that they do so.

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