Historical Literature

Literary Analysis Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr



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Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" strikes a cord with the audience because of his expert use of pathos throughout the piece. King invokes many different emotions when he uses pathos. He invokes anger, sympathy, empathy, and love to emphasize his thesis that injustice has seized the civil rights movement and, therefore, he is in Birmingham City Jail. King says, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Throughout King's letter he often compares himself to biblical characters to increase the pathos of respect for his cause, the cause of truth. For example:
"Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."

By comparing his errand to the errands of the Lord's apostles, the audience feels the grandeur of injustice because of his effort to bring the world to the truth, just as Jesus and His apostles. King also states the question of their condemnation because they are the minority. "Isn't this like condemning Jesus because His unique God-Consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to His will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?" At this point King compares his cause to Jesus' cause. He says, in essence, that the civil rights movement is a God-like event.

Furthermore, King discusses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who lived a higher moral law and refused to lower their standards, even if it meant death. King discusses how they, as well as many early Christians, were endangered because of their unfaltering faith in the truth. King declares that Jesus was an extremist for love, and so is King's work. "So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be." He explains that the three men that were crucified on Calvary's hill were all extremists. "We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism – Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment." By using these religious examples, King is comparing beliefs of those who are known for their devotion to light and truth.

An alternate mode King uses to evoke pathos of disgust, sadness, and sympathy is that of describing numerous horrific events which occurred during non-violent protests. "Like so many experiences of the past we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us." Because of the assumption that the audience has experienced shattered hopes in their own experiences, the previous statement encourages pity, sympathy, and maybe understanding.

In the following quote, it is apparent how King uses vivid images to create the pathos of injustice and anger at the evil acts committed and thereby, have the audience more open to his letter.

"But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brother at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of affluent society – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

The choice of words King uses evokes sympathy or maybe even empathy. For example: "at will," "at whim," "kill with impunity," "smothering in an airtight cage."

To strengthen the sympathetic pathos in his letter, King discusses historical people and events and because something is legal, it doesn't make it right, like segregation. He emphasizes that although everything Hitler did, murdering millions of Jews, cruel scientific experiments, etc., was legal, but it wasn't just. "It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal." King is comparing American segregation to Hitler's anti-Semitic Germany.

Because most people believe what Hitler did was inhumane and unjust, this discussion leads the reader to feel that segregation is unjust as well. It is also important and interesting to note that King is not just concerned about his race, but the human race as a whole promoting his ethos. He does not shy away from wanting to help his "Jewish brothers" if they are in need. King doesn't care about the person's nationality; he wants to help anyone who is treated unfairly.

Further on King uses the example of Socrates to seep into the hearts and empathetic pathos of the reader. He says, "Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?" He later discusses how Abraham Lincoln, John Bunyan, and Thomas Jefferson were extremists because they believed in a free nation. King quotes Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal." King emphasizes that principles this nation of America were founded on which evokes nationalism and love for one's country. By doing this, the pathos of this piece sky-rockets.

Martin Luther King, Jr. makes his point that injustice should not be tolerated in America by using all aspects of pathos to bring out the emotions of the audience. His letter moved a number of the population because of the insights into the African-American plight. By using the right amount of pathos to move his letter along, King reaches out to the reader and ensures that the civil rights movement and the African-Americans are just in their causes.

 

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