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Sample Rhetorical Analysis Essay: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Below is a sample rhetorical analysis essay in MLA of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This sample is intended to help students write better essays.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis Essay

Essay Breakdown

“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 16, 1963, is a seminal document of the American civil rights movement. A rhetorical analysis of this letter reveals its effectiveness in addressing the urgent need for racial justice and equality.


  • Dr. King wrote the letter in response to a statement by eight white clergymen from Birmingham, Alabama, who criticized the Birmingham protests and called for an end to civil rights demonstrations.
  • The exigence here was the deeply entrenched racial segregation, discrimination, and violence faced by African Americans in Birmingham and across the United States. The urgency stemmed from the need to challenge these injustices.


  • Dr. King’s primary audience was the white clergymen who had criticized the civil rights demonstrations. He also addressed a broader audience of concerned Americans.
  • He recognized that the clergymen represented a conservative, moderate viewpoint, and he tailored his message to appeal to their Christian sensibilities and sense of moral duty.


  • The main purpose of Dr. King’s letter was to defend the strategy of nonviolent direct action and to justify the civil rights protests in Birmingham.
  • He aimed to persuade the clergymen and the larger audience that civil disobedience was not only morally justifiable but necessary to bring about social change.
  • Additionally, he sought to address the critics’ call for patience and gradualism and demonstrate why immediate action was imperative.


  • The letter was written during a time of intense racial tensions in Birmingham, known as “Bombingham” due to numerous bombings of African American homes and churches.
  • The broader context was the civil rights movement, with its leaders advocating for an end to segregation and full civil rights for African Americans.


  • Dr. King was constrained by the limited time he had to respond to the clergymen’s statement while in jail.
  • He was also mindful of the need to maintain a respectful tone, as he was writing to fellow clergymen and sought to counter the image of civil rights activists as troublemakers.
  • Cultural and social norms of the time constrained his rhetoric, requiring him to navigate the conservative and religious beliefs of his audience.

Rhetorical Devices:

Dr. King used various rhetorical devices to persuade his audience, including:

  • Ethos: Citing his own moral authority and credentials as a minister and referring to respected figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Pathos: Eliciting strong emotional responses by describing the suffering of African Americans and emphasizing the urgency of justice.
  • Logos: Providing logical arguments for the necessity of civil disobedience and the failure of negotiation and patience.

In conclusion, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” effectively utilizes the rhetorical situation elements to address the urgent need for racial justice and equality during a pivotal moment in American history. Dr. King’s letter remains a testament to the power of persuasive rhetoric in advocating for social change and civil rights.

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