Emotional Appeal in `Letter From Birmingham Jail` Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter, addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” written while he was “confined here in the Birmingham city jail” represents an attempt by King to compel fellow clergymen who have been critical of his tactics in the pursuit of civil rights to join his cause. The letter also justifies the use of those tactics criticized by King’s fellow clergymen, and offers a spiritual and philosophical basis for King and his fellow activists’ actions.
In his letter, King offers a rational, scholarly tone, which is tempered with religiosity and sincerity. The letter presents a rational appeal and an emotional appeal, which are united in historical allusion, Biblical reference and philosophical depth. (King)King repeatedly appeals to a shared sense of religion in his letter; he also cites Biblical examples to bolster his argument. Responding to the criticism that his actions and the actions of his followers, even though non-violent in practice, ultimately resulted in violence on the behalf of the white Southerners who beat and jailed the protestor (and sometimes lynched or otherwise killed African Americans), King compared the fight for civil rights with the fight of Jesus to spread the gospel.
“Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?[…] Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
” Responding to accusations that he was an extremist, King retorted “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.” 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.” (King)King’s appeal via religion and spirituality was based in a desire for unity and understanding.
While he denied accusations of extremity or of inciting violence, he admitted that the impulse for civil rights was, by his reckoning, the will of God. ” But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it vi lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. ” If those words sounded volatile, other statements were steeped in a desire for unity and brotherhood.
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” (King)In addition to appealing to a sense of spiritual and religious nobility, King appealed by use of historical examples. to a sense of rationality and the same sense of liberty and justice which had inspied the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” King casts America not as a progressive nation but as a backward one in its denial of civil rights. He is critical of the idea that time will heal all wounds: ” I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas.
He writes: “An Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” (King)King advises that the will of all people is toward freedom and equality. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.
” (King) By forwarding the notion that civil rights are an inevitable outgrowth of both God’s will and the flow of history, King is, in effect, offering a justification for his tactics and philosophies regarding civil rights.The justification for the elements of passive resistance which had led to violent confrontation is also based in King’s ideas of justice. King’s idea is that God’s law is the highest law and that man’s laws may be broken when they obviously disagree with or even insult God’s law “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.
[…]The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust.
I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St.
Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” King further explains his notion of just and unjust laws by saying “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” (King)With the belief that God’s Law is the highest law and that history shows that all people will struggle for freedom and liberty, and by appealing to the rational sense of justice and the emotional and spiritual senses of brotherhood and love, King attains justification for his actions but does not seek to evade or subvert laws outright: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.
I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” (King)In conclusion, King’s multi-faceted appeal to his fellow clergymen stands not only as an adequate and convincing record of his philosophical, religious and moral justifications for his political actions, but the letter stands as a testimony to King’s learnedness, sincerity, and moral and spiritual convictions.