As president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses fellow clergymen in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. This piece of influential writing has been acknowledged internationally as a masterpiece throughout decades. The Letter is one of the strongest examples of moral argument and references to justice ever found in the genre. Full of didactic and emotional effects, the letter had immediately reached its audience. Dr. King deployed heightened content and thrilling language to highlight the structure of the text.
By addressing the clergymen, Dr. King deliberately rejects taking the high ground and is positive the clergymen who had previously criticized him and the SCLC in their letters. He designs his response in an honest, logical and unemotional manner to refrain from the widespread stereotype of an ‘angry black man’ as far as possible. Hence, being well aware of racial hatreds and fears, Dr. King avoids a fiery tone at all. Instead, his tone is balanced and legalistic, and full of reason. He starts with an unemotional levelheaded appeal gradually growing into a rather fascinating argument.
Right from the start, Dr. King deploys moral argument to emphasize the critical importance of injustice: “I am here because injustice is here.” With that, he alludes to the eighth century prophets who disseminated the teachings of Jesus to the world. To make his argument effective, Dr. King is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town” (170). While referring to the matter of justice, he pinpoints the interrelationship of all communities and states. As a warrior of justice, King cannot neglect any instances of injustice even though they take far away from his hometown. In this context, he forwards a powerful message: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This means that wherever injustice is, its poison spreads everywhere and stings everyone, even though indirectly. Consequently, he would not consider anyone in the United States as an outsider (170). With that in mind, he properly responds to the clergymen who had initially criticized recent demonstrations on the grounds of racial discrimination. At that, he presents Birmingham as a “white power structure” that ignores the rights and interests of the black community and forces them to demonstrate (171).
Further, Dr. King offers to cope with any injustices through negotiation, direct action, and self-purification. Claiming that local leaders had “refused to engage in good-faith negotiation,” King insists on demonstrations as a measure of last resort to attract public attention to institutionalized racism and segregation (171). With that, he refers to the promises of business leaders across Birmingham to the SCLC to cease racism and segregation, though had never kept their word. Consequently, the SCLC opted for using a “direct action” by means of demonstrations to appeal to wider local and national audiences. Prior to appealing to the conscience of the American people, King stresses on the primary process of “self-purification.” The SCLC leaders held workshops to prepare for the non-violent action and suffer arrests in a calm way. The chosen period was Easter to attract wide public attention and win understanding and collaboration from business owners (171). While replying to the anticipated question about the relevance of demonstration instead of continuous negotiations as the best tactic in due circumstances, Dr. King deliberately insists on negotiation as the best tactic, though it is impossible without prior “non-violent direct action.” In other words, direct action would generate buzz and social tension and provoke negotiations (172). With the words “tension” and “crisis”, King plays on the fears disseminated among the moderates, though presents them as nonviolent and constructive.
With the ultimate emphasis on justice in his letter, King refers to tension as an essential prerequisite of growth. To make his argument influential, he refers to the words of Socrates who emphasized the necessity of “tension in one’s mind so that people could rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (172). Ultimately, King attempts to achieve justice through “crisis-packed” scenario by means of tension; herewith, he perceives “dialogue” and “negotiation” as the end game, but believes that it will not happen without a “crisis-packed” scenario (172).
With unemotional and logical tone, Dr. King replies to the criticisms forwarded by the clergymen calling him an outsider who leads demonstrations. Throughout the Letter, King attacks an ambiguous hypocrisy among the clergymen, though does not accuse them explicitly of anything. He only criticizes them for having attacked the effects of segregation rather than its causes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative” (171).
At that, King appeals to the logos (the mind) and pathos (emotions) of the clergymen. This adds a great rhetoric power to this highly persuasive and argumentative masterpiece. At that, King utilizes injustice as a stipulation rather than theological assertion. All the way through his writing, he supports his claims with unimpeachable allusions to Paul of Tarsus and the first Christian missionaries. Thus, with regard to justice, he tries to reach overall effect through allusive metaphorical language rather than direct racial accusations.