Letter from Birmingham Jail: An Analysis Essay
Martin Luther King was the iconic leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. His methods of seeking the public’s attention were peaceful. The African Americans were unjustly segregated before in the United States. Because of this cause, he was always going to places were racism was widespread. This was not a welcome visit for many people (who are generally whites) and he was sent to jail because of this. The Letter from Birmingham Jail was a letter composed from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama addressed to the clergymen who criticized his actions as being too hurried. The theme is all about segregation and a critique of the church as being wrong to maintain the status quo that the blacks and whites be segregated. The letter is very well written and poignant, peppered with a lot of figures of speech. The letter uses a variety of figures of speech to convey emotions that seeks to reach out to the reader by eliciting feelings of anger, disgust, sympathy and empathy. Examples of it are simile personification, and alliteration among many other tropes.
The first figure of speech that is noted is the simile. The lines “… like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid,” (Third paragraph) compare Martin Luther King to Apostle Paul, and using the word “like” as the fulcrum for comparison, it is a simile. The denotative part of the sentence is Paul the apostle and his helpful deeds in Macedonia while the connotative part is how King is like Paul and the Blacks symbolize Macedonia. As a reader, we see that Martin Luther King always compares himself to figures in Christian religion, mostly probably because he was a preacher. The comparison to Paul would make the movement appear to be at the level of that importance too, and it is, because it is revolutionary too. Because of this comparison too, the readers would feel that the injustice against the blacks is too massive, just like Jesus’ movement when Christianity was just starting out. Like Jesus and his apostles, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his group was also a minority and they were always persecuted because of their beliefs. This is parallel to the theme which relates it to the Church who wants to keep the status of blacks in the status quo, like the Romans before.
The next figure of speech noted is the personification. The sentence, “We were victims of a broken promise […] with blasted hopes”(seventh and eighth paragraph), is an example of such with the broken promise taking a role of a person, inflicting pain, blasting hopes and disappointing those that have been promised. This statement echoes the disappointment King’s group had because the economic community in Birmingham refused to comply with their negotiations that said to remove all the store signs with racial slurs (the issue of segregation). At this point in the letter, they have been negotiating terms with the white people to get rid of signs which humiliate the blacks. Their hopes were basically blasted because of the pains that segregation caused. This sentence also justifies their action of civil disobedience, stating that they have been, in fact, victims and they have the right to say that they have been victimized in a negotiation that has not been acted upon correctly. The denotative part of the statement is that the promise is not fulfilled, it is broken; but the connotative part is that the people who made the promise are not honorable enough to make the promise true, thus disappointing the people who have been promised, victimizing them
The third figure of speech is an allusion. In this case, King mentioned Hitler and the status of Jews in the Holocaust with the sentence “It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” (twentieth paragraph). In the paragraph where this sentence is found, King talks about laws not being right. He cites the Holocaust as an example because in Germany at that time, it was legal to murder and torture Jews just at Hitler did. But they are ethically wrong. It was illegal to comfort a Jew at the time. It is also ethically wrong. This refers to the theme of segregation. The denotative meaning is that segregation was legal and right in Germany. Connotatively, it means laws can be morally wrong, thus, one could be doing something illegal, but is morally right. This implies that he does not even recognize religion or race as a factor in helping people. These words gain sympathy not just from Jews, but for all the marginalized people that have been victimized by segregation.
The fourth figure of speech in the letter is an alliteration. In this sentence, “…you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill” (twelfth paragraph), the words curse, kick and kill compose the alliteration and it conveys and emphasizes violence that the people had inflicted among the blacks. The twelfth paragraph of the letter is actually full of alliteration. This paragraph contains images of violence (imagery is also a figure of speech used) used to invoke anger, sympathy and empathy from the reader. Other alliterations that are used imply that this paragraph strongly emphasizes the evils of segregation, and the violence that accompany it. One should note that King was one of the best orators that the world has ever known. The alliteration could not make that big an impact when it is read but when spoken, it is effective. The denotative meaning is that the cops are kicking and cursing, etc but the real, connotative meaning is that the cops, who are supposedly the protectors of the law and the people but they can be also be morally wrong too, thus you should not trust the cops.
The Letter from Birmingham is a very emotional letter. King makes it a point, through this letter, that injustice, in whatever form (even if it is in the guise of being a law), should not be tolerated anywhere, especially America. The letter strikes a chord in anyone who reads it because of King’s expert use of words and figures of speech. He uses it to invoke emotions such as love, sympathy, empathy, anger, disgust, and even pride. This letter also moved many people because like him, this letter does not address any race, age or sex. It also offers the reader insights on what it is to be an African-American during that time. By using the power of words, he reaches out to his readers and ensures the reader that what they do is right, even if it meant being jailed and judged. This was made in Birmingham City Jail where King was imprisoned because he was “disobeying” the laws “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”). Thus, he made the letter answering what he thought is rightful and compares his cause to various historical and religious accounts. This letter is a good account of the injustice that the black people have experience not too long ago.