Rhetorical Strategies Used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

October, 2004

Small Group Reports from

Second and Third Period Sections


I) Syntax 

Period: 3  People in group: Ali, Jared

1. Our first example was on page 529 paragraph 30. 

The quote is "Oppressed people...oppressed forever".

 We thought this quote was effective because of its length.  Unlike most of the other sentences, this one is short.  This puts extra emphasis on this sentence.


2. Our 2nd example was on page 527 paragraph 25. 

The quote is "Isn't this like...crucifixion?". 

This quote uses a chain of rhetorical questions to prove a point.  This quote doesn't simply relay information.  By doing this, Martin Luther King Jr. really makes you think.


Period:  2 People in group: Vera, Krystalle, Jonathan


Pg.: 522,  Paragraph: 5

Specific Literary Device Used: Variety of simple, compound and complex sentences

First Few Words: “You deplore the demonstrations…”

Last Few Words: “…left the Negro community with no alternative.”

Comments: Dr. King begins by acknowledging the initial accusation, and then criticizes it. He uses rhythm to emphasize the power to stand up for the right of his cause.


Pg.: 524,   Paragraph: 14

Specific Literary Device Used: Long and short sentences within a paragraph and parallel structure.

First Few Words: “we have waited for more than 340 years…”

Last Few Words:  “you can understand our legitimate…”

Comments: King’s use of parallel structure is extremely prevalent here with every sub clause beginning with “when.” The result is a very impacting sentence on the reader with every sentence seemingly drilling deeper into his/her emotional thought.


Pg.: 525,   Paragraph: 17

Specific Literary Device Used: Variety of compound and complex sentences. Parallel structure.

First Few Words: “Let us consider a more concrete example…”

Last Few Words: “This is sameness made legal.”

Comments: The use of this syntax is a variety of compound and complex sentences. On page 525, paragraph 17, King writes about just and unjust laws. He starts off with a statement of a compound sentence and goes into the explanation of unjust laws and just laws. Once again, King makes a statement and supports it thoroughly. He also draws a parallel between difference and sameness made legal which is very effective for his argument.



II) Diction  

Period: 2 People in group: Jesse and ?

page 526,   paragraphs 19, 20, 21


words unust, just, justice, injustic, moral, immoral, law, evading, defying,



pg. 325, P. 16

"Now what is the difference......., for they are morally wrong."

Use of different forms of the word segregation, "I - It" vs. "I - Thou", Inferior and Superior, Just and Unjust.


Period: 3 People in group: Ken, Francesca

We had Diction but also related our examples to Sound Devices


Example 1:   pg. 527 par. 23

        "...who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

    diction: using positive and negative which are fairly certain where as peace is a more abstract concept; the idea that there are different types of peace

    sound device: alliteration: positive, peace, presence--- using it creates an idea in the mind that positive peace is more important and better than negative peace


Example 2:        pg. 524 par 13

       "For years now I have heard the word "Wait!"  It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity.  This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never."

    diction: use of the word "piercing" makes the familiarity more negative and forceful-- familiarity is something that is much softer

    sound device: the word wait stops with the exclamation mark, but then continues because of the "ring"; its easy to hear the "wait" continuing in a piercing way---the vision of the word wait drilling holes through and ear appeared in both of our minds---


***we also noticed the uses of the word justice, just, unjust, and injustice as they are used throughout the letter-- in saying the words out loud we discovered the differences in how the words feel as they are said out loud.***




III) Imagery 

Period: 2        People in group: Smriti, Rachel

page 524-525, paragraph 14.

This passage displays many different examples of imagery. The usage of his words such as lynch, curse, kick and drown help to portray how badly racial differences influenced the way people acted towards each other when he was alive. Also the image he portrays in particular when he says "the stinging darts of segregation" gave a quality of feeling to the idea of segregation, in order to portray to us as readers that segregation was an idea that hurt many people and was not pleasant to live around.




Period: 3       People in group: Halcyon, Jess and Carolyn

page 524, paragraph 14

"and see ominous clouds of inferiority...unconscious bitterness towards white people."

In this example King uses imagery and metaphor to describe the horrible pain felt when you must see racism and inequality transposed onto the innocent ones you love. By using these devices you are able to understand the pain King felt when having to explain racism, and watch understanding, and acceptance, of injustice form in her mind.

Jess's example
page 527, end of pararaph 24-- "Like a boil......be cured"
Dr. King uses imagery, comparing injustice and racism to a disgusting boil. He compares the two, saying that they wont get better if they are ignored- they need to be acknowledged and treated.

Carolyn's example:
page 531, paragraph 40--"There was a time...mores of society"
Dr. King uses imagery, comparing early Christianity to a thermostat and present day Christianity to a thermometer. He compares the two meaning that early Christianity was a huge idea that transformed the ways people lived their lives.
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IV) Allusions  

Period: 3    People in group: : Jared, Christen, Alex

Page 526,  Paragraph 21-22

First few words: Passage we took the examples from are from all of paragraph 21 and 22


Boston tea party - Vandalism was then named heroic by American public

Hitler- Everything that Hitler did was legal, but immoral

Hungarian Freedom fighters - What they were doing was illegal, but was the right thing

--Alludes to Martin Luther King Jr doing teh right thing, but having it be illegal.

Doing the moral thing and doing teh legal thing do not always go hand in hand.

Shows civil disobedience is not a new idea.


Period: 2      People in group: Eva and Arielle

pg. 522 paragraph 4

Specific literary device used: Allusion to the Bible and the history of Christianity

First few words: "But more basically, I am in Birmingham because...

Last few words:  "...I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."

Comments:  Martin Luther King Jr. alludes to the Bible and the prophets who went and proclaimed God's words. He says that he is like the prophets and must travel beyond his hometown to proclaim the gospel of freedom.



Josh and Tracy

Page #526 paragraph 21-22

Allusion to history

First few words: "Of course, there is nothing..."

Last few words: "... that country's anti-religious laws"

Comments: Martin Luther King Jr. alludes to examples in the past where people have practiced civil disobedience against oppressive societies. He uses the example of Socrates and how we would not have academic freedom if it was not for his acts of civil disobedience. He also used a more recent example in our own history of The Boston Tea Party. King uses Adolf Hitler as an example because what happened with the Nazis seems so awful to us today, yet it was "legal" then.


Page #529 paragraph 31

Allusion to the Bible and history

First few words: "But though I was initially disappointed..."

Last few words: "... need of creative extremists".

 Comments: Martin Luther King Jr. talks about respected extremists in history and in the Bible. He uses Jesus, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham lincoln as examples to show that extremism can be important as long as you use it for love and not hate. Martin Luther King Jr. then suggests that the South is in need for an extremist.




Check out the 2003-2004 observations about "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"