Analysis of a Letter by Martin Luther King (MLK) Junior: A Question Of Ethics
Analysis of a Letter by Martin Luther King (MLK) Junior: A Letter from Birmingham Jail” was penned as a response to a letter that criticized Martin Luther King Jr. written by eight high ranking clergymen. Although King’s letter was addressed as a reply to these clergymen, the real audience was the “white moderate” – otherwise known as middle class America (King et al 106). By gaining the support of this majority group, King knew that the civil rights movement could achieve its goals of removing the illegal segregation practices that were still in place in the south during the nineteen sixties much faster. In his letter King goes through the list of charges made against him by these religious figures and takes issues with their main points. King’s reply was eloquently written, made use of many methods of development and dealt with a very emotionally charged issue in a predominately logical manner. The letter is without doubt a very powerful piece of prose but its effectiveness is compromised by one unfortunately underlying fault – ethical integrity.
Immediately noticeable in this essay is the eloquence of the prose. This is one of the methods King uses to present his argument in a non-aggressive style. It helps lay the tone of the essay in an ethical sounding, non-blaming manner. This is essential when considering who Kings target audience was. If King had written a letter attacking his audience the ultimate purpose of the essay would have been lost. A good example of this is found in paragraph eight when King writes about the breaking of promises made to the Negro community by the local white merchants. “As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us”(102). This passage immediately shows that King is recognizing faults but, more importantly, still not laying blame. And with the phrase “that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood”(102). we see King again using eloquent language this time as a way to help unite both sides in the struggle against racism.
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Among the many methods of development that King uses to successfully promote his views are narration, comparison and contrast, and cause and effect. While narration is used throughout the essay, one of the most effective examples is the very beginning of the letter. “While confined here in Birmingham City Jail”(100), immediately, and very deliberately, forms the negative image of a poor down trodden people suffering at the hands of an unjust society. This is exactly the image that King wants to begin with because right from the start the reader is involved at an emotional level with the Negro’s plight. Comparison and contrast is also used many times. One of the ways that they are effective is to compare his struggle with racism to the struggles of ethically renowned, historical figures like: Jesus “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hurt you, and pray for them which despiteful use you, and persecute you.”, Abraham Lincoln “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” (and) Thomas Jefferson “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men our created equal….”(108). At first glance this may seem like a dangerous strategy – especially with his comparisons to religious figures like Jesus. Is he really the same as them? In some ways, yes. As shown in the text Martin Luther King Jr. was very passionate about his beliefs in the same way that those he compared himself to were.
King’s main method of development though is cause and effect. This is the method that appears to work best when attempting to persuade an audience through reason. For example when arguing the necessity for civil unrest King refers to the demonstrations as the effect and unjust laws as the cause. In paragraph five King does this in a very direct manner.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement I’m sorry to say, fail to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure none of you would want to rest content with the kind of superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with the effects and does not grapple with underlying causes(101).
It is exactly this type of logical, non-threatening appeal that makes King’s letter so effective. However when combined with the pathos like that found in paragraph nineteen, King’s prose becomes even stronger.
When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cant go to the public amusement park she has just seen advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to coloured children(103).
But it is with King’s ethos that a basic underlying flaw is found. King goes to great length to present himself as an ethically sound figure. It is one of the essential platforms on which his argument is based. With his frequent references to past ethical figures, his humble tone, his non-blaming manner, his extensive and firsthand knowledge of racism, not to mention his own religious background, King comes across as exemplifying ethical fortitude. It is unfortunate then to learn that, along with all his other writings, King relied heavily on plagiarism(Carson). But is the sin of textual appropriation trivial when compared to the sins that King was attempting to end with this prose? Was King simply using the words of others to help reach his audience? Does the ends justify the means? In this question of ethics King seems not to think so. “I have constantly preached…that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends”(King 112).
However, even on unstable ethical ground, it is still hard to argue with the logos of Kings arguments. Again and again King uses a strong, almost irrefutable logical process to arrive at his conclusions. It is through the use of deduction that he achieves this. In paragraph nine we see an excellent example. King begins by stating his claim with “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application”(105). He then follows his claim with specific evidence to support it. “For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade”(105). Then he offers his logical conclusion with “But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest”(105). King uses this form of logical appeal many times throughout the letter so that by its conclusion, you have no logical option but to agree with him.
This is the main reason why, despite its shaky ethical footing, “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” is such an exceptional piece of writing. It is through these rhetorical devices that King achieves his ultimate purpose: convincing his “white moderate”(106) audience to support the civil rights movement.
Carson, Clayborne. Editing Martin Luther King Jr.: Political and Scholarly Issues. 1993.
Stanford University. 11th Nov 2001.
King, Martin, et al.April 2nd 1963. “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Landmarks: A Process Reader. 99 – 113. Eds. Roberta Birks, Tomi Eng, and
Julie Walchli. [Scarbrough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1998.
Analysis of a Letter by Martin Luther King (MLK) Junior
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