Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. Text-based, in-depth Analysis Questions

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Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Text-based, in-depth Analysis Questions

  1. In paragraph 1, who is the audience for this piece and what is the occasion for writing this letter?

  1. What is King’s explanation of the purpose of nonviolent direct action in paragraphs 10 and 11?

  1. How does the phrase, “Justice too long delays is justice denied” (paragraph 13) relate to the central theme of this letter?

  1. Find the extraordinarily long sentence in paragraph 14. Read it again. How does it function rhetorically? – one clearly sees the powerful appeals ethos and pathos. Specifically, how is this particularly effective writing?

  1. Explain King’s philosophical treatment of St. Augstine’s quote, “an unjust law is no law at all” and the dangers of its implied paradox (paragraph 15).

  1. Read paragraph 16 again. List some modern laws and categorize them as just or unjust, then use King’s reasoning to explain why they are just or unjust.

  1. Besides using religion and philosophy in paragraphs 15-16, what is the power of his appeal to logos in paragraphs 17-19.

  1. The basis of civil disobedience is laid out in paragraph 20. What is civil disobedience? According to King, was it a relatively new concept or based in history?

  1. What is King’s “disappointment” with white moderates in paragraph 23? What do you think is the implication of this disappointment to his intended audience?

  1. Elucidate upon the quote: “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (paragraph 23)

  1. How does the “boil” metaphor at the end of paragraph 24 further explain the purpose of nonviolent direct action?

  1. Describe the effect of the four rhetorical questions in paragraph 25.

  1. Many of King’s allusions throughout the text are religious in nature; how is this particularly persuasive in the context of the selected audience?

  1. Interpret the famous concluding lines of paragraph 27: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy … to solidify the rock of human dignity.”

  1. Identify and explain the implicit threat mentioned in paragraph 27 and 29.

  1. According to King, the struggles of the American Negro is also aligned with what other groups?

  1. What are the superficial benefits to moderate whites in labeling nonviolent action by blacks as extremist? In paragraph 31, how does King upend this negative connotation?

  1. What is the “anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows” referenced in paragraph 35 and how does it relate to King’s disappointment that he mentioned in the previous two paragraphs?

  1. Is it a reasonable expectation that the church would play a role in resisting social injustice?

  1. What does King mean when he writes in paragraph 39: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” Can this apply in other social contexts?

  1. How could it be in the interest of the white church to be “an archdefender of the status quo,” as mentioned in paragraph 41?

  1. The last 11 lines of paragraph 44 outline a history of Negroes in America; what does this appeal to (ethos, pathos, logos), and what is the effect on the reader?

  1. What does the T. S. Eliot quote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason,” mean in context as King approaches the conclusion of his letter?

  1. Explain to what extent the last sentence of King’s letter (“Let us hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away … and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty”) have or have not been realized in the United States.

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