A great deal of the power behind Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “I have a Dream” speech lies in an acute understanding of the power of rhetoric and keen awareness of the audience. While all of the arguments Martin Luther King puts forth in both works have the ability to appeal to everyone in some way, the manner in which he shifts his tone and rhetoric many times throughout each text in order to address a specific audience is what makes these documents so powerful—both in out our own modern era and of course, for those involved in the debates over civil rights in America during the 1960s. Since so many of Martin Luther King’s arguments are based on emotion and appeal to tradition and culture, it is most useful to look at the ways he uses rhetoric to appeal to certain subsets of his audience while making arguments that challenge conceptions of these traditions that America is based on.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was addressed to eight clergymen who were putting him to task for the non-violent protests in what they considered to be “their” city. “Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ was instrumental in galvanizing U.S. public opinion around issues of civil rights. Martin Luther King himself believed that it was indispensable in helping him and others to conceptualize the 1963 March on Washington and that it influenced the legislation that allowed the 1963 Civil Rights Bill to come into being” (Gates 1899). Without a strong rhetorical focus that included all potential audiences, the potent effect of this speech might have otherwise been lost, but Martin Luther King uses iconic, biblical, and classical references to bring his point to fruition, thus leaving no party out of the scope of this letter.
“Designed apparently as a refutative response to the clergymen, Martin Luther King’s essay actually addresses two audiences simultaneously; the limited and precisely defined group of eight clergymen and a broader and less exactly defined group of intelligent and religious moderates” (Fulkerson 123). In this letter, Martin Luther King not only addresses these clergymen, but does so on their own terms. He uses rhetorical strategies and language that invokes a sense of these men’s hypocrisy and once he accomplishes this, the argument for the protests broadens out and his tone shifts and begins to include the larger, presumably agreeing audience.
To further consider the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the use rhetoric and images invoked by the following passage from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and take particular note of the way Martin Luther King is attempting to appeal to his audience (in this section, the white clergymen) in classical Anglo terms. This does not seem so much for the ultimate purpose of writing in a way they are able to understand better, but rather, he is using the very cultural, biblical, and classical foundations of Anglo society to point out the inherent hypocrisy in what they claim to hold dear. Martin Luther King states, “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town” (XXX from Letter/Jail). This is truly a brilliant rhetorical strategy in terms of audience awareness. Even though these men clearly disagree with Dr. King and his notion of civil rights and peaceful protest, what counterargument can they propose in the face of their own sacred traditions? Martin Luther King seemed to understand that by putting his argument on the same religious and academic level as these eight men claimed to be at, there would be no possibility of refutation since if they were to do so, they would only look like hypocrites.
In the case of the former argument above, it is also important to point out that Martin Luther King was rhetorically skilled at broadening his arguments to include an ever-widening subset of the audience. As Fulkerson notes, after addressing these clergymen on their own terms (thus eliminating the possibility of refutation through a clever understanding of rhetoric and audience awareness) he includes those “intelligent and religious moderates” by appealing to the audience on a slightly more secular level by invoking a pillar of the Anglo-American academic tradition. Martin Luther King states, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths…” (Letter Birmingham Jail). Therefore, in this context he has not alienated any of his readers, rather, he has brought those non-religious into the fold by addressing concerns that fall outside of the intuitionally religious, but still within the same paradigms academia is based upon.
By the end of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” King has broadened his scope and its corresponding language to include what is perhaps his most important audience, the African Americans themselves. While the beginning of letter addresses the white audience in Anglo terms, his latter part presents a complete shift on the level of language and argument. While his earlier arguments were based on the use of audience awareness, his appeal to the black audience appeals directly to emotion. “You have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and frown your sister and brothers at whim; you have seen hate-filled policemen kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters…” ( Letter/Jail). The language has obviously become far more simplified, but in this very simplicity lies the strength and power of raw emotion.
Perhaps what it most brilliant about the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is that, in capturing his initially intended audience’s attention by appealing to their traditions and foundations, he has made them unconsciously “stay tuned” into the powerful and more simply arguments based on emotion that are to follow. In this way, he has not only reached out to embrace all audiences, but in the very structure of these varied appeals, has made certain that those whom he most wishes to appeal to are forced to hear the other, more emotional side of the argument as well.
This same rhetorical broadening in terms of audience and argument is also present in Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”. In fact, the very same structure of first appealing to Anglo traditions to get them to take heed to the rest of the message is present. Also, there is the same ever-broadening scope of the speech. It begins by addressing the white majority and ends with a rallying cry in more simplified language to those wishing to further the civil rights movement. “A substantial portion of the speech was devoted to telling the story of how America had refused to allow all citizens to participate in the American dream and how we had fallen short of the Christian ideals we supposedly held dear.
In other words, while the ‘American dream’ and the ‘Christian faith’ may have resonated with the audience, the moral force of his speech depended upon the juxtaposition of these structures with the story of racial oppression” (Bridger 329). This is quite apparent in the very opening lines of the speech in which the foundations for American government as exploited for narrative and rhetorical use. In something of a mockery of the great documents of America, King begins, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity” (Dream). By invoking these ideals of America, again, King is pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of what so many Anglo-Americans seem to hold true. Again, by doing so, he eliminates the possibility of dissent amongst that particular audience because if they were to refute this point, that would be equivalent to them claiming that the basis for their country was not valid, a quite shattering notion, really.
Once he has his target audience engaged, much like in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” his language becomes very simple and direct again. The difference is, he is now urging direct action (as opposed to swelling of emotion as expressed in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). He pleads his audience, his voice audibly rising, becoming more “preacher-like” to, “Go back to Mississippi: Go back to Alabama: Go back to South Carolina: Go back to Georgia: Go back to Louisiana: Go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair”(Dream). Overall, once could easily assume that Martin Luther King had a very sharp sense of rhetoric—both classical and modern, and well as a deep understanding of the nature of hypocrisy and the way it factors into arguments. His assumptions about these supposed “pillars” of American society (religion, founding fathers, and the American Dream) enable him to keep his intended audience paying attention for what he most wanted to convey—the emotional plight of those involved in the campaign for civil rights.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Analysis and Summary of “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau • The Emancipation Proclamation: Savior or Rhetoric? • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • The Role of Education and Literacy in Slave Narratives (Douglass, Washington, Equiano)
Bridger, JC. “Narrative Structures and the Catholic Church Closings in Detroit.” Qualitative Sociology 21.3 (1998): 319.
Fulkerson, Richard P. “The Public Letter as a Rhetorical Form: Structure, Logic, and Style in King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 65.2 (1979): 121.
Gates, Henry L., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. “Overview: Martin Luther King Jr.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 1895-1899.