Extended Metaphor In Letter From Birmingham Jail Essay

MLK was a master of metaphor. He didn't give a sermon or a speech without at least a few of 'em sprinkled in, especially when he was driving toward a concluding crescendo.

In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he uses metaphor for a variety of effects, both to paint the painful picture of life in the segregated south and to point to the bright possibilities for racial harmony.

For instance, he compares unjust laws with dangerous dams, and social progress with a river:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. (20)

This isn't just pretty language. There's an important point being made here, and the metaphors just illustrate it as clearly as possible. In other texts, "social progress" can sit on the page as a mere abstraction, but in Dr. King's writings, it's something you can see in your mind as a river.

Another set of metaphors that he used many times during his career compared the dire social situation in America with an "elegy, and the potential future as a "creative psalm"; racial injustice to "quicksand," and the ultimate goal as a "solid rock":

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. (21)

An elegy is a mournful poem or speech, typically about the dead. A psalm, on the other hand, is a hymn in praise of God and creation. Quicksand, of course, is a dangerous kind of sinkhole that is very difficult to escape, while solid rock is commonly understood (especially by Jesus in the Christian Scriptures) to be a good place to build, both literally and spiritually.

In typical MLK style, he concludes his "Letter" with a poetic tumble of metaphors to leave his readers uplifted and hopeful:

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, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. (39)

This is the kind of thing we all need after we've been given a dose of the dreary and pain-filled truth: an inspiring vision that we can actually see in our mind's eye, powered by accessible metaphors. Everyone knows what dark clouds and deep fog are like. Everyone understands what fear and being drenched feels like. And who doesn't love a clear starry sky?

Image Credit: Tracy C., Westport, CT

The renowned author Truman Capote illustrated the power of writing when he stated, “writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade…” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” contains these “laws” to convince the clergymen of a church. Each of King's sentences asks for impartiality and justice for the rights of African Americans. King’s letter uses metaphors and similes to highlight the discrimination occurring and seeks support from the church to help end the awful treatment of African Americans.

Martin Luther King’s metaphors persuade the clergymen to put themselves in the shoes of African Americans. He expresses the privation of African Americans with a metaphor when he wrote; “When you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society….” King compares "smothering in an air-tight cage" to the poverty African Americans are suffering under. A second metaphor depicted racial injustice as “quicksand”. Using the metaphor “quicksand” provides urgency to the issue. This quote portrays how racial injustice is incessantly sinking America and its citizens into dangerous circumstances. Even though racial injustice and quicksand are different, they both are negative elements that cause destruction.


Furthermore, figurative language is used multiple times in King’s letter to convey injustice as immoral. King emphasizes this situation by saying it is painful like “a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light….” In other words a healing boil is akin to racial injustice being exposed so it can be resolved. When racism is exposed, people may see the repulsiveness of the issue. He believes his use of figurative language will make his audience think about these circumstances in detail.


In addition, MLK Jr. uses a quote from the Declaration of Independence. He writes, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." It demonstrates to the clergymen that racial injustice does not follow this aged quote and needs to start doing so.


Strategic support is evident in Dr. King’s letter, as he provides examples and descriptions of racial prejudice. Martin Luther King offers a description of prejudice when he talks about racism in Birmingham:


      “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious (well-known) reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.”


King presents the facts that cannot be disputed. The bombing of homes and churches, police brutality, and the treatment of African-Americans in court are genuine examples that portray prejudice.


Another way MLK Jr. used strategic support was when he told a frustrating story about his six year old daughter who “can't go to the public amusement park.” It breaks King’s heart when he sees, “tears welling up in her little eyes and when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children…” Telling his own story shows that the predicament of racism has reached his child. He hopes the clergy of the church and his oppressors will understand his perspective and join in helping him end racism in America.


Clearly, Martin Luther King’s utilizes his keen writing by making readers visualize the pain African-Americans endured. He weaves his voice into the letter to inspire his audience and communicate his thoughts. As a result, Truman Capote’s “laws of perspective” are used by King, particularly when he tells experiences of his own. The strategy in which Martin Luther King articulates figurative language to sway the clergy and society created a positive catalyst in our humanity.

See full letter here: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html


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