In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses a variety of rhetorical devices (King Jr.). For example, he opens with an appeal to Logos by noting that his presence in Birmingham is logical because of his organizational ties to the area. Farther along in his essay, he appeals to the community standards of the clergy, using the device of Ethos, saying, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” In the central paragraphs, especially beginning, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers …” he makes use of the device of Pathos to justify direct action rather than patient waiting.
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Throughout, however, he refers back to the notion of time, the moment, and in this, he is addressing the concept of Kairos. Kairos is a unique opening or opportunity in the flow of events when something can be accomplished. It is the notion that Shakespeare may have been thinking of when he referred to, “the tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;” (Shakespeare Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224). Martin Luther King, Jr. answers the question, ‘why now’, for the demonstrations which precipitated clerical criticism (Carpenter, Durick and Grafman), in several ways, urging his readers to see the choice to come to Birmingham, and more broadly, to engage in direct non-violent action, right at that point in time, as inevitable and reasonable.
In pointing towards this moment, at this place, he notes the 340-year history of oppression of enslaved Africans and the progress of other races and peoples around the world towards self-determination. He narrows down the moment by referring to the promises of Birmingham merchants of September 1962, and the self-purification undertook by the movement to prepare for non-violent protest when these promises failed. He further particularizes the time by referencing the March election as another key event around which they planned. Then he describes the Easter shopping season as a prime time to generate an impact on sales through a “strong economic-withdrawal program”.
It is at this point that he could possibly have added to the intensity of his highlighting of Kairos.
The Easter season is more than a key shopping time. It is also the culmination, for believing Christians, of 40 days of meditation on the life and acts of Jesus. King could have noted that during this season, Christians would and should be reflecting on a similar, dramatic act of civil defiance and a most selfless act of non-violent protest.
He could have pointed out that Christians would be studying the Biblical account of the entrance of Jesus and his followers into the city of Jerusalem in full knowledge of the authorities’ antipathy to them, and the subsequent indictment and condemnation that led to crucifixion. He drew a parallel later in his letter between the punishment of Jesus for extremism, and the apparent extremism of the civil rights movement, but he could here have drawn attention to the fact that the Easter season should be a time for remembering another non-violent response to an oppressor government and culture.
Additionally, Passover in 1963 was drawing to a close around on Easter Monday. He could have noted that believing Jews would simultaneously be commemorating Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt. This was certainly a dramatic act of civil defiance against an oppressive state.
He could have stated something similar to the following:
The Easter season also gave us a chance to draw the attention of observant Christians and Jews to the signal events of their denominations. This was the moment when Christians remember that Jesus laid down his life for us, and Jews recall in gratitude that Jehovah led them out of slavery to the Egyptians. How could we not take advantage of this moment when people of faith are thinking about events that parallel so closely the selfless resistance against oppression that we are attempting to accomplish?
This would have strengthened his invoking of Kairos.
Carpenter, C.C.J., et al. The following is the public statement directed to Martin Luther King, Jr., by eight Alabama clergymen. 1963. Web.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]“. 1963 Web.
Shakespeare, William. “Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men“.” 1623. E-notes. Web.