“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis Essay
Prompt: Choose a passage from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and analyze how Martin Luther King, Jr. uses rhetorical strategies to create the various appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos) in order to achieve his purpose. Support your analysis of his rhetoric with specific references to the text.
Note: You may choose a passage in which one appeal is more prominent than others and focus on that appeal or a passage in which multiple appeals are evident.
Your essay will include:
- The passage of your choice. It can be longer than one paragraph if need be. However, try to keep the passage relatively brief (think less than half of a page on this essay) in order to limit your scope. Choose a passage whose purpose aligns with King’s broader purpose in the letter. The passage should be copied above the body of your essay. Use 10 pt. font and indent on both sides. The passage must come after paragraph 14.
- Provide the necessary context: title of the text, author name, rhetorical situation (what led the author to write this).
- Thesis statement: address the prompt! Identify the rhetorical strategies the author uses to achieve his purpose – be sure to identify the purpose.
Sample thesis statement frame: King establishes his credibility by using (rhetorical strategy) and (rhetorical strategy) in order to ultimately (purpose).
King appeals to both emotion and reason by using (rhetorical strategy) in order to (purpose).
- Body Paragraphs
- Your essay should contain 2-3 body paragraphs. Each body paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that alerts the reader as to what the paragraph will be analyzing
Sample topic sentences: King continuously employs (rhetorical strategy) in order to (create a specific appeal); King appeals to (emotion/reason/credibility) by employing (rhetorical strategy) and (another rhetorical strategy).
- Incorporate textual evidence from your chosen passage. Include at least three pieces of evidence total (1-2 per body paragraph). Explain why King uses this particular rhetorical strategy and how it is effective in creating the appeal and achieving his overall purpose. Remember: it is not enough to merely identify a rhetorical strategy and an appeal. It is your job to analyze why that particular strategy is effective in creating the appeal and how it contributes to the overall purpose of the text.
- Remember to transition between and within paragraphs (similarly, moreover, furthermore, later, however, etc.).
- Reframe your thesis to add closure to your essay. Answer the question, “So what?” Explain why the reader should care about King’s argument. Here is your chance to demonstrate how well you understand how the writer’s rhetoric is in service to the larger meaning and purpose of the text as well as to explore the relevance of the text in relationship to the world.
- “In your statement, you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? 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? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because His unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to His will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”
- Using the passage above, find three quotes each relating to a rhetorical strategy and write a body paragraph for each.
- Examples Model Hooks:
- We often see segregation as a terrible tragedy and mistake in the United States, and sticking up for segregated peoples in the modern era is never questioned. However, how could you convince people in the 60s, who had become comfortable with their lives while black Americans suffered, that segregation was a horrible mistake and ruined people’s livelihood?
- Imagine being bullied at school or at work. You speak out against this bully, but certain people are praising the bullies for their work! If you think you would be outraged at this, you have a feel of how Martin Luther King, Jr. felt when the clergymen praised law enforcement for their management of the protests. Despite the brutality shown by police when dealing with nonviolent protests, some commended the actions of law enforcement.
- The Civil Rights Movement, though not so controversial today, was an area disputed among the white moderate in the mid-20th century. American minister and activist, Martin Luther King, was a very visible speaker for the case of civil rights at this time. Like the movement, he received much criticism and condemnation. One of the most well-known criticisms was an open letter from Alabama’s clergymen, where prominent members of the church denounced King’s demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. While incarcerated, King wrote a famed response to the clergymen, “The Letter From Birmingham Jail”, where he dismantled their arguments and encouraged action from the white moderate.
- In 1963, Birmingham topped the list as one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. The injustice received by the Black community worsened rapidly and precipitated numerous protests across the city that were almost always met with violence and arrests from the Birmingham Police Department. During one of the protests, on April 12, Martin Luther King, – a long-time civil rights activist invited to Birmingham to help end segregation – along with at least 50 protesters were arrested for protesting without a permit. This protest sparked the local eight clergymen to write a letter addressed to King entitled, ”A Call For Unity” which made multiple claims regarding King and the protests. To respond, King wrote back from his jail cell in a letter that was soon known as “The Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which addressed all of the clergymens’ claims and prompted many to join in with the peaceful protests to end segregation.
- Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after being arrested for peacefully protesting in Birmingham Alabama. King writes this letter as he is sitting in his jail cell as both a response to a letter he received from a group of clergymen, but also as a response to those who dislike King’s methods because they think it creates tension in their community.
Model Thesis Statements:
- King uses the rhetorical strategies of simple diction, allusion, and metaphor to create appeals to pathos and logos so the targeted white moderate will be moved to help the anti segregation movement.
- In King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he utilizes many rhetorical strategies like allusions, rhetorical questions, and metaphors, creating an appeal to pathos and helping him achieve his purpose: to end segregation and gain equality and justice.
- In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Junior, he appeals to emotion and reason by utilizing an anaphora and metaphors in order to emphasize the need for people to take a stand for racial equality. Body Paragraph Student Models: “LFBJ” Rhetorical Analysis EssayModel Topic Sentences:
- In paragraph 26 of his letter, King appeals to logos using a metaphor.
- King alludes to history in order to appeal to the audience’s sense of patriotic pride.
- To prove his point about extremism, King employs parallel structure, thus building a logical argument.
Model Quote Integration:
- In paragraph 26, King proposes a question to the audience: “Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?”
- King argues, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’”
- King poses the question, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”
- King thinks that it is “time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Model Language Commentary:
- By equating racial prejudice to dark clouds, King is placing emphasis on the darkness that racial segregation has brought about on the nation. Dark clouds are indicators that foreshadow ominous events or weather; furthermore, the concept of darkness can be attributed to evil, death, tragedy, and fear. In the same way, King is implying that racial segregation has brought about sin, devastation, and setback to the nation and its citizens.
- Here, King alludes to the Bible verse Matthews 5:44 not to enforce the content of the verse, but to give an example of Jesus’ extremist actions for love. He does this in order to justify his own “extremist” actions to his largely Christian audience. King knows that his audience looks up to the Bible, so by comparing his doings to those of Jesus, King turns the clergymen’s originally negative label into something positive.
Model Appeals Commentary:
- Because boils are something that are very clearly undesirable, much like racial injustice, King’s audience will associate the grossness and ugliness of the boils and racial injustice. Thus making his audience want to act to rid their communities of this vile thing that is discrimination.
- In addition, strong diction allows readers to visualize scenarios vividly, and because in this case the scenario exposed to the reader is violent and brutal as indicated by the words “ugly” and “inhumane”, the audience will feel an even deeper-rooted sense of disgust towards the police.
Model Purpose Commentary:
- This metaphor allows King to achieve his purpose because it makes people think about segregation as a disease, which will encourage them to get rid of segregation. Diseases usually impact people in a negative way, which is why people would want to get rid of it. The desire to get rid of the “disease” would encourage people to fight for the end of segregation.
- King’s logic will also justify and convince the clergymen that his actions are non-hostile, but in fact pure. Altogether, this would then refute the clergymen’s accusations, while pushing them to rethink their perspective of King’s intentions in a brighter light.
Example Full Body Paragraph:
To begin, King uses a Biblical allusion in order to appeal to the reader’s emotions along with a historical allusion to establish his credibility. King argues, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” Here, King alludes to the Bible verse Matthews 5:44 not to enforce the content of the verse, but to give an example of Jesus’ extremist actions for love. He does this in order to justify his own “extremist” actions to his largely Christian audience. King knows that his audience looks up to the Bible, so by comparing his doings to those of Jesus, King turns the clergymen’s originally negative label into something positive. This Biblical allusion creates a feeling of guilt in the reader. The majority of King’s audience, especially the clergymen, are Christian so by proving that his actions are no different to Jesus’, King makes the reader feel guilty for denouncing the protests. This feeling of guilt drives the reader to accept King’s efforts towards gaining racial equality and doubt the clergymen’s claim which in turn gains support for King. Subsequently, King offers an alternate case of an extremist for a necessary cause: “And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’” Not only does King utilize a Biblical allusion, but also a historical allusion to further emphasize his point that extreme action is sometimes necessary. Abraham Lincoln is known for abolishing slavery and said that “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free” which is very similar to King’s belief that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” By highlighting the commonality between King’s attitude towards gaining racial equality and Lincoln’s undoubtedly crucial efforts towards the abolishment of slavery, King again solidifies the justification for his actions. This historical allusion establishes King’s credibility. By emphasizing the distinct similarities between King’s and Lincoln’s actions, King poses the question to the reader, “If such a highly respected leader did this, why can’t I?” This makes the reader side with King’s argument and denounce the clergymen’s claim as they realize that the actions King is taking to end segregation are as just valid and crucial as the actions taken to end slavery.
This essay should be approximately between 750-1,000 words.
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