“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis
Emotion. It is what, as the soulful creatures we are, holds us together, tears us apart, sets our very heart on fire with rage, or love. Our emotions seep through our bodies like lava, slowly cascading and melting into every part of us until it covers us whole with all of its feeling. Day by day we seem to live and make decisions that are based immensely on our emotions of the moment. In Martin Luther King Junior’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King uses his knowledge of human emotion, as well as sympathy and empathy, to strongly persuade his audience. King also intertwines the rhetorical field of emotion into the rhetorical element of strategy. Although they are separate, King uses many appeals to our emotion as a strategy. At one point in his essay, King says, “I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young Negro boys; if you will observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I am sorry that I can’t join you in your praise for the police department.”(pg.277) Throughout this quote, King has many strategies, and probably more than the common person would see into his words. He uses a lot of imagery, evoking vivid and detailed pictures in the minds of his readers. It doesn’t matter whether a person is reading his words today, or if a person was reading it ‘hot off the presses’ so to speak; anyone would have an emotional connection, a human twinge of guilt or an involuntary flinch as they imagine others pain and suffering.
However, these feelings may not have been conscious or on the surface of those who were vehemently opposed to Kings peaceful demand for change in their society. King is planting a seed in the minds of those who hated him, a seed which is just waiting to grow and break the surface, and give those people the common sense knowledge they lacked. In addition to the imagery, King also uses repetition to engrave in his readers’ minds what he is saying. Just as advertisers create jingles which stick in our heads and make us remember the product, King repeats, “I don’t believe you would … commend the policemen …” (p.277) like a jingle that has penetrated our minds with the images that tag along. I would imagine, as in today’s world, that this constant reminder would have the soul aching for those distraught, another way emotion is used. If the quote above made you cringe with a flood of emotions, this is not all that King has got strung up his sleeve. Even earlier in the letter, King says, “I guess it is easy for those that have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…as you seek to explain to your six – year – old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park … and see tears welling up in her little eyes … and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky … when you are … haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip – toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next …” (pg. 267-268) Not only does the imagery crush the hearts of many with emotion, King also writes this as one single sentence. I have not included the entire passage, and so there are even more accounts which King writes about.
However, because the passage is one single sentence, you get this feeling of urgency and by the end of the passage, even if you are not ready aloud, you get the feeling that you are out of breath, or maybe even out of time. Although this logically makes no sense at all, that is the feeling that we get. Without even directly saying it at all, King strongly gives his readers the idea that they are running out of air, out of time, just like the Negroes of King’s world. King has suddenly given the feelings of those suffering, to those who are not. In one passage he makes his readers feel distraught, stuck, out of time, with no way out, and he never even mentions any of that directly. This passage is a very good example of how closely King intertwines and weaves together his strategies and the emotions of his readers.