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Essay #1: Analysis Of An Argument

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Essay #1: Analysis of an Argument

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a profound and persuasive written argument that captures emotion encompassing rigid life experiences, educated observances, and deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. In this letter King freely expresses his position concerning the injustice that blacks faced. This injustice was segregation, "the system of laws and customs separating blacks and whites that whites used to control blacks after slavery was abolished in the 1860s" ("Civil Rights..."). While imprisoned in April of 1963 King directly responds to "Letter from Eight White Clergymen" using a variety of argumentative techniques.

King's devotion to "justice for all" is the consistent energy expressed in his letter. In an attempt to appeal to reason, King states, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law"(234). King illustrates this appeal through definition by proving the basis for a just law. He further explains that a just law can be unjust when it is designed for only one group in society. "An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This difference is made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal"(235). Through inductive logic King draws a conclusion about unjust laws by his personal observation:

"Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance, which requires a permit for parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest"(235).

By this statement King also proves that "in its application" an unjust law can oppose a just law. In this circumstance the just law is the First-Amendment right to peaceful assembly and protest and the unjust law prohibits one group of people from obtaining this right as a citizen of the United States of America. From this point King's appeal to reason carefully merges into an appeal to character.

After King demonstrates how a law is unjust he makes his position clear concerning breaking laws. King is aware of his audiences' "disproval" of breaking laws. According to King in this essay he doesn't "advocate evading or defying the law", and he finds it very important that his audience see these facts clearly. It is critical for King to establish a platform from which his audience can understand why he supports certain "illegal" actions. King does support breaking unjust laws but feels that, "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty"(235). King knows that his audience is linked to himself by spiritual beliefs and he uses biblical reference in order to establish this common ground: "Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo to obey the law of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake"(235). Through this argument King is defending his character by standing on his spiritual beliefs and using them for an example of his current battle causing his audience to relate to his cause. After establishing some common ground with his audience King then moves to appeal to their emotion.

King focuses on a dark historical reference that he knows, based on his audience's beliefs, will be a powerful emotional argument: "We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal"(235). King goes on to state his disappointment in his "Christian and Jewish brothers". Showing disappointment in his audience may cause self-reflection therefore exhibiting a strong



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