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Close Reading, Close Writing

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Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” (1963). These words are the best description of the speaker’s ideas, and these beliefs are represented throughout all of his works. Three of his essays – “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, “Hammer of Civil Rights” and “Let Justice Roll Down” – develop the ideas of freedom and equality fully. King speaks about victory of humanity in these essays, and the major point of these works is that freedom cannot be stopped because it is something inescapable in the society which was found on it.

An American clergyman emphasizes on the idea of change: he says that people should not wait for changes, but do everything for them to come quickly. In order to do that, persons must be united and devoted to what they believe in. King paints a vivid picture of African-Americans’ lives; he describes injustices, abuses, cruelty they had to endure. He portrays people being scared to act and those who would rather delay action than do something.

King’s three essays form a logical chain; they represent three parts of one big picture. The progressivist wrote each of them one year after another: he created “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963 while confined there; “Hammer of Civil Rights” and “Let Justice Roll Down” were written in 1964 and 1965 respectively. Each of the essays represents certain steps in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and shows its leader’s view of the situation. Reading essays in sequence shows how King’s ideas developed with the growth of the equality movement. 

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 The first essay, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” represents activist’s vision of the world. It is not one of his fiery essays where he yields for justice, but rather an explanation of his motives and the reasons behind the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The “Letter…” was written in Birmingham jail where King was confined after the peaceful city protests against segregation and discrimination. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner faced a lot of criticism for organizing the protests; many considered them to be too urgent and even extremist blaming King for the tensions in Birmingham. He answered that criticism in his letter giving a detailed explanation of his actions. His appeal to people is a great example of ethos: he honestly tells ones about his own experience. King writes, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights” (King 1963).

The author addresses his fellow brothers telling them not judge him for the actions they considered extremist. King explains that protests were organized to create such tension which would “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (King 1963). These words are a good example of pathos.

This part also shows the best of King’s writing style: his prophetic appeal to people and the usage of examples and repetitions. The writer uses emotional language to touch not ony readers’ heads, but their hearts, as well as appealing to pathos. For instance, when King speaks of the intolerance black people face, he uses a great example of his young daughter who cannot go to the public amusement park because it is closed to the “colored children.” His reasoning and appeal to logos is also brilliant; he defends his active participation in the protest with the great quote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (King 1963). In addition, he uses strong arguments to unite people in America saying, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (King 1963).

Despite King’s fiery words and his confidence, everything he writes is done with a great sense of love toward people. He concludes his letter with a message of hope: he writes, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities” (King 1963). It is a representation of author’s beliefs in the quick solution of racial injustices and dreams of the better future.

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The first article gives a prophetic vision of King’s favored future. The second article, “Hammer of Civil Rights,” which was written a year later, gives a different impression. It paints a picture of changing America where Afro-Americans do not wait anymore: they struggle, they fight, and they succeed. This article is rather the proclamation of growing the Civil Rights Movement which cannot be held back any longer. King changes his style comparing to the way he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. “Hammer of Civil Rights” is more pushing, more confident, more active. King retreats from his preaching; he becomes a man of an action whose dream is finally coming true. He speaks about the government delaying solving this issue and not willing to fix the situation. The activist describes the protests that took place and aggression against protesters, as well as policemen’s actions, using emotional language and a lot of epithets. He emphasizes on the government’s inability to react adequately to the protests; he also speaks about the local officials disregarding the government and ignoring people’s demands. King stresses that Afro-Americans have shown great courage taking the direct nonviolent action, but “they have been left – by the most powerful federal government in the world –almost solely to their own resources to face a massively equipped army” (King 1964).  

King uses this example to show that similar things happen throughout the United States and it is a problem which must be solved on the national level. He speaks about abuse of power and unconstitutional ruling; he also summarizes the results of Birmingham protests. In his opinion, the keys to victory were the bravery of African-Americans and their refusal to be intimidated. He says that Afro-American “have found nonviolent direct action to be a miraculous method of curbing force, but it is not a cure-all” (King 1964). 

King concludes this article with suuch words, “The new found strength of the civil rights movement will not vanish or wither” (King 1964). This statement is filled with author’s confidence and pathos.

The third work, called “Let Justice Roll Down,” is the final stage of the previous two. It sums up the goals and achievement of the Civil Rights Movement and expresses King’s satisfaction with every step made by the activists. The great orator realizes that there are still more steps to take; he uses examples of two cities in Alabama – Selma and Marion – in which discrimination is taking place. He asks rhetorical questions in this essay: appeals to Lyndon B. Johnson whether he wants to be a consensus President. According to King, a consensus President does not bring innovations, but does a job of a technician, and this is the fault of the previous American Presidents. King speaks about the urgent necessity to use the federal law to establish equality and freedom. He also speaks about changes in the lives of African-Americans since they have awakened from their despair. The author claims, “Each accomplishment was the culmination of long years of ache and agony” (King 1965). With this quote, he describes the obstacles black people had to overcome and the actions done to improve the situation. King writes, “Change is not accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism” (King 1965). These words show that main reason for the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement is not simply to improve the lives of black people, but to eliminate the humiliating stereotypes about them. The goal of this movement is to equalize individuals despite their races, religions and social positions. King’s idea is best expressed in his words, “The most important single imperative is that we continue moving forward with the indomitable spirit of those two turbulent years” (King 1965). This is the path the clergyman followed himself and inspired others to follow.

The three articles can be easily connected into one: the first one is an introduction which explains King’s motives, the second focuses on the results of the actions, and the third is about unstoppable changes in society and the just future ahead. The progressive writer uses his own distinctive style: a lot of rhetorical appeals, wide usage of comparisons and examples, metaphors and epithets. King escalates the most important points and challenges in his essays. His argumentation seems to be undeniable and undisputable. Furthermore, thanks to his reasoning the three works have the perfect logical structure, which shows King’s appeal to logos.

His ethical appeal is developed through his own experience. The analyzed essays are convincing and believable because they are based on the real facts. This is how he appeals to ethos.  As for his appeal to logos, he uses logical argumentation, examples, comparisons and quotes that support his ideas.

King’s essays tell about freedom and ways to achieve it. They make people think about injustice and fight against it. Despite the great struggles we face sometimes, we must always remember about love and respect for each other – something that King never forgot about.

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