Rhetorical devices

Allusions and direct references

An allusion is an indirect reference to people, events, literature, etc. aimed at creating associations for the readers and to add further emphasis to the writer’s views. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. includes a large volume of allusions and direct references that can be divided into several categories.

Religious figures and events

As Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister who was inspired to use non-violent means in the civil rights movement by religious philosophy, it comes as no surprise that his letter is full of religious references. These references are even more relevant because the letter is a reply to criticism coming from clergymen.

For example, King mentions directly “the prophets of the eighth century B.C.” and “the Apostle Paul” as religious examples that support the idea that Christians have a duty to promote justice wherever injustices are committed, and in this way, reject the criticism that his pres…

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Analogy

Analogies are comparisons through which the writer uses one event or person to describe another, creating associations for the readers. In King’s letter, you will notice that the writer sometimes draws parallels between his actions as a civil rights activist and the actions of religious or historical figures who changed society. The analogies are with Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. In other words, King borrows from the ethos of these figures to gain credibility and legitimacy in front of his readers.

In another example, the writer associates himself with prophe…

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Metaphors and similes

The text includes numerous instances when the writer uses descriptive and metaphorical language to make his arguments more dynamic and appealing.

An example of metaphor is when the writer associates destiny with a piece of clothing that can be put on and shared: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of …

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Repetition

Repetitions help the writer give structure to his arguments and highlight important aspects. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King typically uses repetition in the form of anaphora – repeating the same word(s) at the beginning of consecutive clauses.

The anaphora “If you were to” is meant to inspire his readers to emp…

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Rhetorical questions

Various rhetorical questions help the writer introduces new topics he addresses in reply to criticism from white clergymen: “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?’ ” ; “Some have asked: ‘Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?’ ” ; “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ ”.

Additionally, King uses rhetorical questions to describe how activists think and make readers understand the logic behind the protests:  “…we repeatedly asked o…

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