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Essay: King’s Use of Allusion, Metaphors, and Imagery in the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Tags: Martin Luther King Essays

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Maya Koller

Logan Davis

Writing 150

9 October 2018

“Yours for the Cause of Peace and Brotherhood”

In the masterful epistle famously entitled, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the author, Martin Luther King Jr., addresses the written criticism of eight local Christian and Jewish religious leaders who denounce Dr. King and the recent demonstrations against segregation.  Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, well-known for its racist prejudice and brutality, guiltless bombings of Black church’s and homes, and numberless demonstrations and marches for racial equality, King drafted a vehement defense of his use of direct, nonviolent actions against racism.  While King’s response is directed most clearly towards local Christian and Jewish religious leaders, as his letter progresses he seems to be enticing all people to take part in his cause.  In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King, Jr. utilizes allusion, metaphors, imagery, and repetition to establish pathos in order to effectively convince the white religious leaders of the South of the importance and efficacy of nonviolent demonstrations against segregation.

Given King’s extensive religious background and participation, it is not surprising to see the use of Biblical allusions throughout his work to evoke emotional responses from his audience.  Mentioned very early in his letter, King states,” “Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”  Knowing that his audience includes religious leaders and individuals, King effectively evokes an emotional, religious response from his readers.  His purpose in using biblical apostles and prophets as a comparison to his own actions was to give readers a sense of the duty and assignment he has been asked by God to fulfill.  Dr. King knows his audience well enough to know that they understand the consequences foretold by ancient prophets of disobeying God’s counsel.  His allusion to biblical prophets creates a feeling of determination and allowance for his recent use of nonviolent, but direct, action.  In particular, by alluding to the Apostle Paul’s urgency to carry the gospel, he creates a feeling of urgency in his writing to get readers to feel the seriousness of his message.  King uses allusion to connect the content of his letter with the larger world.  Allusion calls to mind the ideas and emotions of hope and healing associated with well-known events or people like Jesus Christ and Paul.  Those ideas and emotions then contribute deeper and more personal meaning to the message King is conveying.  

Another effective use of allusion in, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” comes further in the article when King says, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”  By alluding to Socrates’s necessity to create tension in the mind, King compares rising from the bondage of myths and half-truths to rising from the dark depths of prejudice and racism and he creates a feeling of empowerment through his writing that encourages individuals to rise above those dark depths and reach our full potential as a society.  King’s allusion to Socrates’s thoughts on tension is also King’s effective strategy for making his audience feel the real tension between the brutal treatment of black Americans at the time and what they knew was right.  The emotional strain that King conveys through his writing effectively attempts to disintegrate the pride of Christian and Jewish leaders in his audience who teach the commandment to love all people but who publicly bash Black Americans and act contrary to what they teach.  

King also relies on metaphors of light and darkness to create pathos throughout his response.  He uses phrases such as, “…rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood”, “Individuals may see the moral light…”, and “… the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us.”  These metaphors are effective in creating emotion because the words light and darkness themselves evoke positive and negative emotion inside us.  By connecting the words of light and darkness to specific points in his letter he helps the reader to associate those feelings of lightness or darkness with ideas like segregation, morals, brotherhood, and racism.  In particular, because of the context surrounding this letter, it is important to remember that people had different opinions about segregation- some thought it was good and some thought it was bad.  But by writing metaphors like, “stinging darts of segregation” or “disease of segregation” he creates a negative cloud of emotion around those ideas so that no matter what people believe about segregation, they cannot read his phrases about segregation positively.  On the other hand, King uses the word “light” to brighten the connotation of words like “moral” so that readers feeling a desire to reach the moral light he is speaking of.

King further enhances his writing by making effective use of graphic imagery to evoke emotion from his audience.  A specific example of effective use of imagery in King’s writing says, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…”  By so explicitly describing the violence endured by black Americans and not sheepishly talking about the brutal situation of America as it is, King creates a sense of suffering that evokes compassion for African Americans and a feeling of guilt for those who might have thus far been contributors in their oppression.  Dr. King deepens his impressive use of imagery as he describes this oppression by saying, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”  King creates a visual of the mental and emotional damage that segregation has on African Americans so that readers feel the deeper pain that African Americans experienced- not just physical pain.  Because of how clear King is with imagery in his writing, his audience feels the emotional pain of the oppressed even if they haven’t experienced the same physical pain.

Finally, King makes effective use of repetition in his writing to emphasize emotions throughout his work.  One of the best examples from, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is where King repeatedly says, ““We speedily decided to postpone action… we decided again to postpone action… we endured postponement after postponement…”  The constant and repetitive use of the word postponement creates a sense of dragging in this portion of his writing.  King wants his audience to feel this sense of dragging to help them understand the amount of patience and longsuffering African Americans endured during the Civil Rights movement.  The repetition builds and builds the emotional argument that King is making, to get his audience to understand that Black Americans can’t wait any longer for justice.  These emotions support his case that his people have been told to wait over and over again, and now Dr. King is demanding that the Black community be given what they deserve as humans with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King demonstrates just how powerful the use of pathos can be.  His use of powerful allusions, connotative metaphors, graphic imagery, and repetition effectively persuade his audience to leave behind the current ideas of segregation and racism to take part in his work towards the Civil Rights movement.  But even more than persuading his audience to understand the reasoning behind his actions, King is persuading individuals to fracture the strenuous grip of social pressures and fears in order to break the chains of oppression and negligence.  His steadfast belief and vision for the future of African Americans kept him grounded in his convictions with passion and intensity.  Martin Luther King’s valent sacrifices and yearning for the future of Black Americans effectively creates in his readers a sense of responsibility to fabricate a society that cherishes equality and admiration for people of all races, cultures, and upbringings.

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