Even after slavery was abolished in the United States, discrimination against African Americans still took place in society. Laws were even created to separate and differentiate the lives and rights of the African American populace from that of the Caucasian populace. Society is always changing, so campaigns against racial segregation were certain to happen eventually. There were many powerful leaders during the movements against racial discrimination. They led the way to desegregation and equal rights with their actions, speeches, and writings. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these major advocates against societal racism, and through his works, the United States made many advances toward equality. One of his many campaigns was in the form of a letter that he wrote after being thrown in jail for protesting in Birmingham, Alabama. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King uses different literary devices, such as biblical and historical allusions as well as figures of speech, to portray his message against racial segregation and bias in the United States to local white clergymen.
Martin Luther King Jr. uses biblical allusions to compare the actions of the African American people to the actions of certain biblical figures. This helps him convey his message because he is speaking to religious leaders. He states that everyone will be an extremist, but he also states that there are two different types of extremism. He uses the three men crucified on Calvary’s hill as an example of the different types of extremism. Martin Luther King Jr. says that two of those men were extremists of hate and that Jesus was an extremist of love. He states that extremists are oppressed even if their extremism is out of love. He explains that the protests of the African American people are a form of loving extremism because their protests are for the betterment of the people and not meant to harm anyone. He conveys the message that Jesus was wrongfully persecuted for being an extremist of love, and that the African American population are also being extremists of love; therefore, being wrongfully persecuted (King 172). Dr. King also states that there are just and unjust laws, and he uses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to convey his point. Dr. King states that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar’s law “on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake” (King 168). He uses this as his way of protesting against the racially biased laws in America. Martin Luther King Jr. states that some laws need to be rebelled against in order to show how unjust they are. He says that certain people are willing to protest against unjust laws even if it results in incarceration or even death (King 168), just as Shadrach Meshach and Abednego protested against the worship of king Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Authorized King James Version Bible, Daniel 3.8-12).
Dr. Martin Luther King also uses many historical allusions to prove that change is destined to happen and that it is a natural process in order for society to advance itself. One of the examples he gives is that “everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’” (King 169). Adolf Hitler had thousands of Jews persecuted and killed during the holocaust (Kurth 11). While this was legal in Germany at the time, it was also inhumane and unjust. The Hungarian freedom fighters also worked to fight against the Soviet Union and its Communist government to gain their own independence (Goode). Dr. King is expressing that while an action may be “legal” that does not make it right, and while an action may be “illegal” that does not make it wrong. By using this comparison Dr. King is saying that the laws segregating the people are not necessarily right, and that the protests against segregation are not necessarily wrong (King 169). Dr. King also compares the Boston Tea Party to the protests of the African Americans (King 168). The tea party was a protest against British rule in which thousands of pounds of tea were dumped into the Boston harbor. This act of protest by a small group of people started a series of events that eventually led to American independence from Great Britain’s rule (Higginbotham and Johansen). The Boston Tea Party was considered an act of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King is saying that the protests against racial discrimination are also acts of civil disobedience. In comparing the protests against racial bias to the tea party Dr. King also shows that this type of protesting is not new to the country. He is saying that if white Americans can gain their independence from the British through civil disobedience then the African Americans can as well (King 168).
King also uses many figures of speech in his letter to make his points easier to understand and relate to for the clergymen. In Dr. King’s letter he writes:
Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured. (King 169)
In this he uses a simile to compare injustice to a boil. He also uses two metaphors to compare human conscience to light and national opinion to air. He uses this as a way of saying that the injustice of persecution towards African Americans is being covered up by the white supremacy, but that the problem will never go away until the truth is unveiled to the public (King 169). He also uses a simile and a metaphor to compare the political movements of Africa, Asia, and the U.S. to vastly different modes of transportation. King states, “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter” (King 169). His use of comparison emphasizes the incredulity he has toward the American society. He also uses the large difference between these comparisons to show just how little the white male population is willing to accept the inevitable change, despite the rest of the world’s societal changes (King 169).
Dr. King uses many different literary devices in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to deliver his message to local white clergymen about his stance on racial bias and segregation laws. He does this by using biblical allusions, historical allusions, and figures of speech. A couple of the biblical allusions he makes are about the three men crucified on Calvary’s hill and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He knows his message will be stronger to the religious men if he compares the struggles that the African Americans are facing to the struggles of biblical figures. He also uses many historical allusions, such as Adolf Hitler, the Hungarian freedom fighters, and the Boston Tea Party, to show that the protests against segregation are a natural occurrence in order for the American society to advance. Dr. King also uses many different figures of speech to make his points relatable for the white clergymen. He does this using a combination of metaphors and similes. Martin Luther King Jr. expresses his message against racial discrimination very well by using literary devices to strengthen his argument.