Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated four decades after his death because he was an effective and persuasive civil rights advocate. A holiday marks the birthday of Doctor King because of what he accomplished using nonviolent civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the holiday also reminds students of English, of History, of Speech, and of Law how to be a persuasive rhetorician. King was so effective and persuasive precisely because he was an enormously powerful wordsmith; King was uniquely able to translate overwhelming emotions and sensitive subject matter into logical, well-formed, and inarguable stances. As a result, his "I have a dream" speech has become a part of common vernacular, as have several original sayings derived from his speeches and writings. Statements such as "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" have become so famous that many people would actually be hard-pressed to attribute them to a specific author. This latter statement was written while King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for violating the law in an act of civil disobedience. Doctor King penned a letter, which was addressed specifically to his "fellow clergymen," that appeals equally as well to the layperson or anyone interested in civil rights. Dr. King's rhetoric thus becomes imprinted on the universal human brain, a sure sign that he demonstrates what Wayne C. Booth calls "rhetorical balance." In light of Booth's essay "The Rhetorical Stance," I suggest that Doctor King aptly demonstrates "rhetorical balance." King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is in fact a prime piece of rhetorical balance, one that Booth could easily have used as an example of how writers can organize and compose their material without falling into the three traps that Booth discusses in his essay. I feel that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" clearly demonstrates ethos, pathos, and logos without taking on a pedant's, advertiser's or entertainer's stance.
Before we go into the specific reasons why "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" does not fall into the deviant rhetorical stances, I would like to speak about why King's letter is generally effective according to Booth's terms of good rhetoric. First, Dr. King's letter is supremely well-organized. While it is long and occasionally rambling, and although King does use a lot of emotional appeals, the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" proceeds in a linear and coherent fashion. King addresses some key criticisms aimed toward him, criticisms that he willingly acknowledges and which he also cleverly turns around toward his advantage. King manages to inject powerful emotional appeals throughout "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" without going off onto any tangents or avoiding the specific issues at hand. When King refers to the history of the African-American people and of slavery, he does so only in relation to the specific incidents occurring in Alabama, incidents that affected his being jailed and that affect the lives of people that he knows personally. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" balances organization with emotion perfectly.
Second, King's letter accomplishes the ultimate goal of the rhetorician: to change minds. Booth states, "We all experience the balance whenever we find an author who succeeds in changing our minds," (32). But King did not change my mind; he changed the minds of people who count: those who voted and lobbied for the implementation of laws and regulations that banned racial segregation and made racial intolerance a gross aberration. While racism is unfortunately alive in the United States, what Dr. King did for the American psyche cannot be denied. The fact that a holiday is celebrated nationwide in his honor is evidence of the amazing ability of King to change peoples' minds with his words. The end of Jim Crow and the implementation of Affirmative Action programs...
However, King does not fall into the entertainer's stance, the egotistical over-reliance on his own credentials to the discredit of the material at hand. I feel that King can teach students of writing how to talk about their credentials without exaggeration or self-aggrandizement. Furthermore, King's speech is in part so effective because we, the audience, know that he speaks from real experience. He is not one of the "white moderates" that he criticizes. Nor does King demonstrate what he calls "the hatred and despair of the black nationalist." Rather, King's tone falls neatly in between the desire to assert himself rightfully and the desire to remain humble. He knows more about the subject of racial discrimination because he is black and because he suffered the brunt of racism. He also knows about civil disobedience because he practices it and lives it. In fact, the reason why this letter was written from jail is because King was so willing to put his words into action. Therefore, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is not merely a fluffy speech deriding racism but a powerful piece of rhetoric by a man who has experienced pain and suffering. Therefore, his audience will be much more likely to believe him than if he did not intimately know his subject.
Now I shall discuss in turn the three corruptions of the rhetorician's stance, according to Wayne C. Booth's essay. First, Booth talks about the pedant's stance, which "springs from ignoring the audience or over-reliance on 'pure' subject," (30). More than either of the other two rhetorical corruptions, King falls least into this trap. In fact, King's article is completely personal and intimate in feel. Throughout the letter, which by its very nature is a personalized statement, King uses the first person singular and plural and the second person. Even if King had not chosen to use second person, the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" would still not be pedantic because of his keen ability to engage the reader. However, use of first and second person is the main key to King's rhetorical stance, to his balanced composition. As a letter, King's piece is addressed "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." Thus, even before King launches into his argument he establishes his audience clearly. As a reader, I did not have to guess what King's audience was; I knew that he spoke mainly to fellow religious men. These are people who live orderly, regimented lives and who criticized King for his willingness to break the law in order to secure civil rights. King's tone of voice is respectful and amicable without being overly conciliatory. Reading King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," I also noticed how King avoids sounding pedantic in his argument because of his ability to anticipate and systematically address audience objections. For instance, King's fellow clergymen had noted that King should have waited for a more opportune time to negotiate. In response, King states, "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Therefore, King cleverly weaves the concerns of his audience into his letter, turning what could be a detriment into a considerable advantage for him. However, King does so without sounding high-and-mighty and without at all losing sight of the nature of his audience.
Therefore, when King uses religious analogies or allusions, he does not seem pretentious. His audience is, after all, a body of highly religious people. When he quotes St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich, Martin Luther King is relying on the power of logos as well as of pathos and ethos. Nor, as a pedant would do, does King use religious analogies or allusions in a dry fashion. Rather, when King refers to the words of saints and mystics, he does so with substantial emotional appeal. He is not quoting these notable spiritual persons in order to sound like an erudite, well-read scholar of religious studies. These religious motifs are in fact the common language between King and his fellow clergymen. I feel strongly that King kept his audience firmly in mind when he penned "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." If King's audience had been a court room jury, on the other hand, I would have definitely thought that the author had overstepped the boundaries of good rhetoric and would have demonstrated some of the deviations that Booth discusses in his writing.
King's effective rhetorical stance depends primarily on his ability to select his audience carefully and address his statements immediately to them, not to some vague hostile or sympathetic body of listeners. The issues of civil rights and civil disobedience require a specific audience because of the delicate nature of the subject matter. In the case with "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King has a relatively easy audience: it is not as if he is addressing a meeting of the Klan. Nevertheless, his audience disparaged King's use of civil disobedience. Rather than speak blankly to a faceless mass, King is specifically addressing issues that the clergy…
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