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“A Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “I Have A Dream” by M. L. King Jr. Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

Introduction

Martin Luther King can aptly be regarded as the true lover of mankind, who dedicated himself for his fellow beings. He devoted most part of his life for the well being of the black Americans. He appeared wherever he found injustice, protest, injustice and action. His welfare activities and writings for his race won him great acclaim, and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an important written document of the civil rights protest era and a widely read modern literary classic. His historical speech, “I Have a Dream” was conferred for thousands of blacks in America.

Main Body

Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s greatest speech, “I Have a Dream” and his widely discussed letter, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, are the true pictures of his age and they portray the pathetic state of the black Americans under the whites. This paper attempts a comparative study of Dr. King’s great speech, “I Have a Dream” and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and tries to find out what is common between them. Dr. King expresses the dreadful impact of racial discrimination. The social convictions, the laws, and even the law courts were against the blacks.

Dr. King begins his speech “I Have a Dream” providing the allusion to the time when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Dr King’s words reveal his beliefs in social justice and each line of his speech gives a serious picture about the social crisis. The purpose of his speech was to give freedom to the slaves and make all men equal. Through this speech, he reveals the dreadful plight of black people in America. Dr. King mentions that the black people have led a submissive life under the white dominated society. Dr. King points out that all rights and laws are insufficient for the black men and women. Dr. King says that even after 100 years, the black Americans live under isolation and segregation.

Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is also a fine piece of literature that expresses his worries about the church, especially about the white clergymen who had a negative attitude against the black men in America. The disbelief of the white clergy and their discouraging attitude of religious and civil rights movement etc had a deep impact on King, and he wrote the letter to the priests regarding their irresponsible attitude in various other fields. As the president of southern Christian Leadership Conference, he could associate with other programs for the welfare activities for the blacks in America.

At the very beginning of the ”Letter from Birmingham Jail” itself, he tries to oppose the arguments raised against him by the white clergymen. He gives them a reply to their question why he is there in Birmingham. He says, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” and he continues to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. His views regarding the demonstrations are noteworthy. He is of the view that almost all the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham are futile in the case of the black Americans and it is the most segregated city in the United States. Negroes faced discrimination from all part of the society; even the courts did not show them any benevolence. Continuous bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham turned them against the city leaders.

Dr. King never believes in violence. According to him non-violence is the best weapon for disobedience. He mentions the name of Mahatma Gandhi and his guidance in Indian independence struggle. King uses a stylistic language having poetic improvisation. In the first half of his speech King expresses the furious American nightmare of injustice and inequality. King tries to lead us into an imaginary world, where all men live in harmony.

In the second half of the speech, “I Have a Dream”, Martin Luther King shares his prospect of a better future with racial harmony. Dr. King uses the phrase ‘I have a dream’ several times in his speech. It may be a landmark on King’s inspirational concepts. This phrase is the core of speech by which he captured the minds of the people. King’s phrase “I have a dream “is like a rhetoric, which is used to enhance the soul.

King’s speech is marvelous both technically and ideologically. King’s speech is widely acceptable as an effective use of examples. King uses a number of metaphors in his speech. Through these metaphors, Dr. King enters to the soul of the speech. These metaphors form clear images that are connecting to certain emotions. For instance, Dr. King uses the metaphor ‘sweltering heat’ to express injustice. Injustice is uncomfortable and painful. Alexandra Alvarez rightly comments that the whole speech itself is metaphorical in nature and it reveals the political crises in America. He makes it clear when he says: “The speech event itself is metaphorical in nature, signaling political protest.” (Alvarez, 337-357).

The metaphors that King used absolutely increase the effectiveness of his speech

Many metaphors have been used in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” also. He uses it effectively while speaking about the religious support in the struggle for freedom. He feels that people loose their true belief in religion and he makes it clear when he says that they lost the ”spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel.” (King, p.8).

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King uses obscure allusions from the Bible, as he has been writing to the eight educated clergymen. The purpose of using allusions in his works was to make clear his words and actions to his audience. In his speeches, he had to satisfy different kinds of people from different backgrounds and with different levels of education. In most of his speeches and writings, he often quoted allusions from the constitution and patriotic songs, which are easily understandable to the audience. These allusions were helpful in rousing the patriotism and equality in the minds of the people.

Many allusions can be identified in his speech, “I Have a Dream”. He uses a large number of Biblical allusions. When he speaks about the injustice shown by the whites against the blacks, he aptly quotes ”No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (King).

Here King uses the allusions from Bible – Amos 5:24 “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”(Dr. King; “I Have a Dream.”). Along with the Biblical allusions, Dr. King has also uses some allusions from Shakespearian plays. King also uses ethos, a persuasive mode of speaking in his speech. King increases the beauty of his speech by using pathos or the appeal to emotions, which capture the mind of the audience.

Imagery is another literary device commonly found in Dr. King’s writings and in speeches. He used it also for the comprehension of his audience and readers. Images and togetherness are the two themes found in his speeches. He has also used images from the current social situations; imagery of a group of tired travelers; etc to create picture in the minds of the audience. However, he does not use much imagery in his letter because, here his readers are well educated and much imagery is unnecessary to satisfy their comprehension. Nevertheless, the imageries he used in his letter are powerful and thought provoking. It is clear when he portrays the real state of the black men of America who “still creep at horse-and-buggy pace towards gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” (King, p.3). The pathetic state of the country with a snail pace was exhibited through this imagery.

Along with the literary devices generally used in his speeches and writings, literary devices like similes, parallel nouns, use of contrastive ideas, parallel clauses, parallelism, that is, the repetition of the same words in different contexts, etc can be identified in Dr. King’s writings.

His speech, “I Have a Dream” is to an extent rhetorical. Here, in his speech he could wisely use the power of repetition, such as the phrase ‘I have a dream’ which had a tremendous effect on the listeners. There are many common factors in the speech and the letter. Both discuss the problems concerned with the blacks in America. However, the letter is not for the public like the speech and its content is fully personal, as it was specially written to the eight clergymen. In his speech, he could emphasize the facts. Both the letter and speech could reveal Dr. King’s unending thirst for equality. As a black man, he had realized the bitter realities of life with the whites, and he never allowed any kind of partiality between the blacks and the whites. He strongly believes that the present condition will change one day or the other. He dreams “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (Dr. King- “I Have a Dream”). His hopes of a better future have been expressed through his lines, quoted from the Bible.

Conclusion

To conclude, we can infer that Dr. King’s speech, “I Have a Dream” and his ““Letter from the Birmingham Jail” were aimed at the welfare of the blacks in America and in their social and moral well being. As a true humanitarian, in his life time he could never shut his eyes against the social injustice and violence, which finally took off his life.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Alexandra. Journal of Black Studies: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. Sage Journals Online. 18.3. 1988. 2008. Web.

Alvarez, Alexandra. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. Journal of Black Studies. 18.3. 1998. 2008. Web.

King, Martin Luther Jr. . American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches. 1963. 2008. Web.

King, Martin Luther Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail. The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963. 2008. Web.

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