Historically, the art of rhetorical writing and speaking has been one of the key skills that a good political leader should possess. Martin Luther King is definitely a perfect example of rhetorical brilliance, which his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail proves. This persuasive piece of writing demonstrates how the author is able to be respectful to his audience and yet assertively defend his point of view by using a number of rhetorical figures and tools.
The audience of the letter is a group of white clergymen who disapprove King’s activities as a participant of anti-segregation meeting in Alabama. For this reason he is arrested, so the letter is written from Birmingham Jail. In his letter, the leader intends to refute arguments and criticisms raised by his opponents, and uses a range of rhetorical methods to do so. The author begins by recognizing the merits of his opponents and stressing his unity with them. He does so by using the phrases “fellow clergymen”, “men of genuine good will”, the aim of which is to establish “ethos”, that is atmosphere of trust and sympathy from the very beginning.
Overall, King’s opponents have three points of criticism about his activities, which he refutes one by one. First of all, King explains his presence in Alabama by stating “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. One of the rhetorical approaches that he uses is partially agreeing with his opponents definitions but interpreting them in a positive way. Thus, he agrees with the clergymen about the fact that tension is created by the marches. However, he places the word “tension” in a new productive context. He says: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth”. Thus, he does not only agree that demonstrations created tension but claims that this was the aim to create it. He refers to the wisdom of ancient classical philosophers to prove his point of view.
Each paragraph he starts from formulating his opponents’ accusation and then gives his explanation to it. He uses rhetorical questions abundantly including asking them on behalf of his opposition. Besides, he uses a device called hypophora, which is puts questions and answers them. By refuting the statement that his actions are untimely, he points out that “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. Another rhetorical tools that King uses extensively is repetition, which makes the reader get emotionally involved in the discussed issues. The long sentences with climaxing emotional arguments are contrasted with short factual statements, which makes them especially persuasive.
One more approach that King used is providing historical evidence to prove his point. Besides, he is perfectly aware that his audience is religious people, so he chooses quotations from authoritative clerical sources to play on the same field with his opponents. To make his arguments sound weighty, he refers to St.Paul, Thomas Aquinas, as well as to first presidents like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. By doing so, he makes the army of his followers justified by law, history and religion.
Overall, Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of the masterpieces of rhetorical art. Martin Luther King uses a number of devices that make his point of view sound persuasive and reach not only the clergymen that he addresses but the broad public that was his real intended audience. Such tools as repetition, contrast, hypophora, rhetorical questions and others are applied in the piece of writing to make it effective. “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith” – King finishes his letter with these words and implies that he and his opponents will meet as equals in the world free of racial prejudice.