In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King called for the United States to be a country with freedom and equality where all races should unite and that the true happiness of the African American society will only be gained by getting rid of persecution, suffering, and hatred. Martin Luther King’s successful persuasion not only lies in his eloquence but also in his skillful use of various rhetorical techniques. Martin Luther King used a full combination of moral, emotional, and rational appeals to humanize African American, a minority group that has been classified as “others” by the white society, in order to change the image of African American from an apathetic object to a group of human deserving the same rights as all other racial groups. Through the letter, Martin Luther King tried to tell the readers that apartheid is not only absurd politically, economically and sociologically, but also morally wrong and guilty while calling on all African American to unite to overthrow unjust laws and fight for freedom and equality.
In order to succeed in his goal of humanizing the image of African American among the society, Martin Luther King has extensively used the technique of emotional appealing in his letters. He customized his words to each different categories of potential readers, including the response to clergymen, the critics, the common white society, and of course his own African American neighborhood. Through these words, he specifically designed his response to each group, letting them understand his standing while moving them with emotional affection. This strategy aided Martin Luther King in changing the stereotypical wrong ideas existed in the society that legality equals to equality, and leading his readers into the actions fighting for the final victory. This application of emotional appeal is mainly embodied in the following aspects: the application of parallelism rhetoric and Martin Luther King’s emotional language in addition to the usage of emotional intonation.
Similar to Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream”, this letter from Birmingham Jail also used a lot of parallelisms. As the highlight of the whole letter, Martin Luther King used ten sentences describing ten different but also similar scenarios; different because each of the subordinates groups being described are different categories within the African American neighborhood, however, they are also similar because they all represented what struggles African Americans were facing under the structure of apartheid. These sentences started with the word “when’ formed a powerful parallelism structure to describe the miserable life and unfair treatment from African Americans’ everyday life, which was meant to arouse strong sympathy of the readers.
For most African Americans at that time, there is an enormous amount of restriction in their daily life deciding what they can do and what they cannot do. These things they cannot do, as implied in the ten different cases described by Martin Luther King, have also constituted parallelism. This parallelism structured the sociological fact that the African American society was being subordinated into the bottom of the social-class pyramid, and Martin Luther King’s words are the true portrayal of the current society. As a result, the author has aroused the readers’ emotional response and resonance.
Under white supremacy, the concept of disability has been used as the justification of racial inequality, especially between white people and African American. As the white people community believed, “since they belonged to a race inferior by nature, all blacks were necessarily inferior to (nearly) all whites” (Baynton, 59), therefore formed the common social hierarchy between white people as the dominant group and African American as the subordinate group being categorized as others. Among these distinct differences between the subordinator and the dominator, these two groups were living two extremely different lifestyles including cultural, political, and economic gaps.
Even with the civil right movement of African American becoming a huge topic among the society, because of these gaps, the white society does not understand why these civil rights like Martin Luther King are calling for unity forming the nonviolent campaign emotionally and their thought will be easily led by the clergymen into believing the civil rights revolution is “unwise and untimely” (Carpenter, 79). However, the usage of parallelism rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail exposed and enlarged all the pains experienced by the subordinate African America community, enhancing the white society’s understanding of the second-half world outside their living zone, stimulating their empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience other people’s situations in order to feel and understand their emotions. The application of parallelism rhetoric stimulated the general white society’s empathy for them to better understand African American; Americans struggles, indicating the necessity of starting the nonviolent protest and also calling for more people to support this community from the other side.
As an African American men himself, Martin Luther King can understand the living conditions of African American neighborhood and their true feelings better. By using emotional language and emotional intonation, the author was able to imbue his readers. Martin Luther King used very detailed examples form what he has seen and experienced from his neighborhood to convey feelings to his peer readers and to achieve strong emotional stimulation with their feeling. Using these examples, Martin Luther King combined all the domination and discrimination faced by African American together, inspiring them with the urge to unite together on one side for the demanding of equal rights. As Martin Luther King said himself, “the oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” and “the yearning for freedom will eventually manifest itself” (King, 84).
Within the usage of emotional intonation, Martin Luther King listed multiple examples about the “stinging darts of segregation” in a random African American’s everyday life. Starting with the break-in from mobs among all the dangers faced by his community, King mentioned how vicious mobs had no fear break into houses owned by African American families, acting violently towards any African American’s parents and siblings. Martin Luther King pointed out that the reason why these mobs had no fear was that of the inaction of police while “protecting” this poor neighborhood. Not only did not the police tried to protect the African American society, but they were also one of the primary threats faced by the general community. One the one hand, the African American community was facing violent actions specifically targeted on them form the police; on the other hand, this commuting is suffering from poverty because they were the subordinators underneath the shell of white capitalism.
Similar to the process of lighting fireworks, describing the general picture of how bad the situation it is toward African American community and the threats they were facing is like lighting the matches and the fire started from the very edge of the string. In order to start the firework, more heat will be needed, instead of waiting for the existed fire to reached the firework, Martin Luther King chose to accelerate the process by talking about his personal experiences in relation to the next generation. Both Martin Luther King’s six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son had experienced the differences between people with different race. Children, normally being seen as the representation of innocence, had to experience racial inequality in such an early age, which led to the thinking: will they have to experience what the adult African Americans are currently facing when they grew up? This personable experience from Martin Luther King sent out extremely emotional signals while stimulating African American’s idea to united together for the nonviolent campaign. Moreover, Martin Luther King has also mentioned more general threats faced by individual African Americans for further emotional resonance.
Despite how efficient the usage of the application of parallelism rhetoric and emotional language can be, there are certain disadvantages to it. Both Parallelism rhetoric and emotional language Ould be helpful in the emotional response towards the general African America society, however, there are possibilities that it will go too far leading to violent campaign instead of the nonviolent campaign highly praised by Martin Luther King. The purpose of nonviolent direct action was to create tension within a community which “has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (King, 82). While nonviolent actions have the ability to dramatize the civil right equality issues for furtherer negotiation, direct violent action would cause hundreds, even thousands of damage, creating difficulty for the occurrence of peaceful negotiations.
Generally speaking, Martin Luther King understood the role of moral appeal in effective speech. His intelligence, his understanding of readers, his intellectual memory of the civil rights movement and his personal charm have been fully embodied in this letter, which greatly increases the credibility of his speech.