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"letter from a Birmingham Jail" Analysis

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A Legacy of Freedom

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear” (Aung San Suu Kyi). And that is what the African Americans yearned for, “freedom from fear”, in the 20th century. From almost 1955 to 1968, the time of racial segregation, African Americans were forced to live as though they were prisoners rather than citizens of the United States. They could not drink from the same water fountains as the white citizens or attend the same schools. They were simply denied equal rights as the white citizens, which included public facilities. But among these frightened and broken African Americans, lived some brave souls. Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others are honored figures from the Civil Rights era, who rose against the discrimination towards the African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr., a strong leader within the African American community, a leader who explained to the white clergymen why his fight for freedom was not “unwise and untimely” in the length of ten well-put pages. In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr., King writes his response to the criticism of the white clergymen by addressing the need for direct action, extremism, and his disappointment with the Church.

In the letter, King repeatedly talks about direct action. According to King, “direct action” is a nonviolent protest on the streets which stirs tension in the community, forcing the community to give up and negotiate with the opposing party. Before direct action, King and his movement approached more peaceful ways. Their initial strategy was to negotiate with Birmingham’s economic community, but Birmingham’s economic community failed to compromise with them. “As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community” (2). This quote from the letter shows their willingness to do anything in order to attain their freedom and equal rights. This is direct action, in which they will sacrifice everything to go on a march without any protection from the police in order to awaken the communities’ human nature of emotion and get their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. uses many rhetorical questions as he talks about direct action. These rhetorical questions include: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” (2). He specifically uses rhetorical questions to clear up any misunderstandings about why the direct action took place. In addition, King uses the persuasion technique logos by referring to Socrates and his point in which Socrates says it is necessary to create tension in order to help individuals understand reality and the struggles in which some are suffering. He uses Socrates because he is a figure whom everybody agrees with and so therefore it is a great technique to appeal to the clergymen and enhance his claim about direct action.

Moreover in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the idea of extremism. The group of clergymen called King an extremist due to his actions in Birmingham. At first, King was disappointed that the church would see his peaceful and nonviolent ways as those of an extremist. But, gradually, King turned the idea that he is an extremist on its head by claiming that he is glad to be one. According to him, if being an extremist means doing something for the greater good, then he is pleased to be an extremist. In his case, the greater good is the freedom of the African Americans. “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”, (7). He uses Jesus as an example by saying that Jesus was an extremist for love and because of that he rose in ranks in the hearts of the believers. Martin Luther King Jr. uses logos to further explain his views in extremism and give examples of figures from the past who used the idea of extremism in a good way. The examples include, “Was not Amos an extremist for justice: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”, (7). King specifically uses logos to persuade the clergymen that extremism can be used in a good way as well.

Martin Luther King Jr. had great expectations from the

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