Tag Archives: antithesis

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, I offer another analysis of one of Dr. King’s historic documents, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written on April 16, 1963.  This past August I conducted an analysis of the metaphors from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  While the “I Have a Dream” speech contains some of the best examples of political metaphors in any speech in the English language, his “Letter” does not contain the same level of soaring rhetoric, perhaps simply because it was written as a letter and not a speech. Nonetheless, the “Letter” contains some of Dr. King’s most important writing and is studied worldwide by high school and college students.

recreation of Dr. KIng's jail cell at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN
recreation of Dr. KIng’s jail cell at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

First, a little background. Dr. King was in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to protest the discrimination against African-Americans in that city.  He was arrested along with several other civil rights leaders and was confined to a cramped jail cell for eight days.  While in jail, he was given a copy of a local newspaper in which eight white clergymen criticized the civil rights movement claiming that progress needed to be made in the courts, not in the streets.  Dr. King addressed his letter to these clergymen, brilliantly explaining the reasons for his nonviolent protests.  He quotes the Bible and many historical figures defending his methods to fight injustice. It is in this letter that he created many memorable quotes such as, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” or the famous line, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I must also add a few notes on the text.  Originally, Dr. King did not have any writing materials in his jail cell, so he wrote most of the letter in the margins of the newspaper.  Later he was given a writing tablet and rewrote the letter.  After his release from jail, several different versions were published, some without his permission.  A common version seen on the Internet is one that was published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in July, 1963.  However, this version leaves out about 500 words of the complete text which amounts to nearly 6000 words.  For my analysis, I have used a scholar-reviewed text from the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies Center which I found to be the most complete: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.  There is even disagreement on the exact title.  Some sources list the title with an “a” or “the” Birmingham Jail, while more authoritative sources list it without any article.  The most definitive anthology of Dr. King’s writings list it without the article so that is the form I follow here (see A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

As for the metaphors, there are not as many colorful examples as one finds in the “I Have a Dream” speech.  However, there are interesting parallels to that speech in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Here are a few examples taken directly from the text of the letter.  I use italics (not in the original) to highlight the metaphorical terms or phrases being used.

Buildings and Prisons

One way that Dr. King frames his arguments in his letter is by describing the society that has allowed the discrimination to continue in terms of its structure and cages.


Buildings have complex structures that give it strength and durability.  Metaphorically social systems can also have structure.

Example:  In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure.

Example:  It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.


In several different writings, Dr. King referred to discrimination and poverty as putting people in cages as if they were wild animals.

Example:  … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…


Dr. King uses metaphors of groups of people being tied or bound to an unjust society as if they are in a prison.

Example:  Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?


Dr. King refers to chains to imply a connection to the shackles of slavery or prison.  In this example, he has been describing how many clergymen have not been supportive of the civil rights movement due to traditions in their churches.

Example:  But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.

blog - mlk - mlk why we can't waitoutsider

As Lakoff and Johnson pointed out years ago, we often conceptualize social processes in terms of containers, as in falling in or out of love. In this case, Dr. King takes offense at the clergyman calling him an outsider to the city of Birmingham, since this implies that he is outside of the box or the shape of normal social structures.

Example:  I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”

Example:  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Tension and Pressure

To follow the framing of people being put into cages or bound structures, Dr. King describes the tension and pressure that African-Americans were feeling at the time.


Although we may not think of the word tension as a metaphor, it is actually a case in which a physical action is used metaphorically to describe an emotional feeling or social situation.  Not surprisingly, the word tension is used to describe some of the feelings of African-Americans who were enslaved and discriminated against for centuries.  It also perfectly describes the results of the many fights and arguments among white and African-American politicians, clergymen and ordinary people during the early 1960s.  By my count, Dr. King uses the word tension 24 times in the document.

Example:  My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

blog - MLK - pressure_gaugepressure

The word pressure is also a scientific term used metaphorically to describe the increased tension of the time.  Importantly, note that in physics, pressure occurs when one strong or heavy object is exerting force onto a weaker object.  In race relations at the time, it was certainly true that the whites were a much more dominant force exerting pressure on the blacks to conform to their traditional norms.  In contrast, the blacks were trying to pressure the power structure of the whites to end discrimination. In the following example, Dr. King describes the situation when Albert Boutwell has just been elected as mayor of Birmingham, defeating the infamous Bull Connor, who several months later, as safety commissioner, used fire hoses and dogs to quell a demonstration there.

Example:  I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.


As I described earlier in the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King often uses journey metaphors to describe the process of trying to end discrimination and gain civil rights for African-Americans in the United States.  Here he uses a few more examples of journey metaphors describing the process in terms of walking or driving.

open doors

The first step of a journey is to step out of the house.  Metaphorically, opening a door indicates that the journey can begin.

Example:  The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.


Paths are small roads.  Metaphorically, paths are a way to reach a destination or goal.

Example:  You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

tiptoe stance

Walking carefully or silently sometimes requires walking on one’s tiptoes.  Walking on tiptoes also implies that someone is taking care not to upset or offend someone else who has equal or greater status.  In this example, Dr. King is describing how difficult it is for blacks to live in a country where they are constantly discriminated against.

Example:  …when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments…

bogged down

People walking through marshy areas will be slowed by the muddy ground known as a marsh or bog.  We may say that they get bogged down in the mud. Metaphorically, being bogged down means that the person is slowed down in a process to reach a goal due to unseen obstacles or impediments.

Example:  I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

stumbling block, strides

To trip and fall while walking may be called stumbling.  An obstacle in the path of someone may be referred to as a stumbling block.  Metaphorically, anything that impedes the progress of someone trying to reach a goal may be called a stumbling block.  In this example, he also refers to the journey as someone taking strides towards freedom.

Example:  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler [sic] or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…


We may also take journeys in cars or trucks which rely on wheels for smooth movement. In this example, he describes progress towards civil rights as a vehicle rolling on wheels.

Example:  Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.


Some roads in mountainous regions can go around the mountains.  In other areas, engineers must dig a tunnel through the mountains so the road can continue.  In a poetic example, Dr. King applauds the efforts of some clergymen who have helped people in the civil rights movement.

Example:  They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

blog - mlk - Horse_and_buggy_(Beaverton,_Oregon_Historical_Photo_Gallery)_(37)jets and buggies

In a final example, Dr. King describes the speed of the progress towards civil rights as being as slow as a horse and buggy, while other countries are speeding along as if they are flying a jet.

Example:  We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

Metaphors of  Antithesis

As the previous two examples illustrate, Dr. King was a master of creating what is called juxtaposition or antithesis in studies of rhetoric.  He compares and contrasts two ideas to make a point about the distance one must travel in a journey or the vast differences between two sections of society.  In the “I Have a Dream” speech he used contrast with light and dark, and high and low.  He uses some of the same imagery here.

dark depths and majestic heights

In the first example, he describes prejudice and racism as being dark and low while understanding and brotherhood are high.  He also uses an interesting insect metaphor, comparing civil rights protesters to “nonviolent gadflies,” i.e., those types of flies that fly quickly between different areas and annoy livestock, pets or people.  Note too that here he refers back to other metaphors of tension and bondage as he sets up the antithetical metaphor structure.

Example: Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

dark and light, medical cures

In this more complex example, he compares the darkness of injustice to the light of national opinion.  At the same time he compares the injustice to a medical problem such as a boil that must be lanced and allowed to be out in the air in order for healing to take place.

Example:  Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

blog - mlk - Boldogkő_Castle_-_castle_dungeon_maturity-Hungarydungeons and hills

            In yet another example, he describes complacency and inaction to dark dungeons, while protesting is described as bright hills.

Example:  Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

quicksand and solid rock

Using a comparison found in nature, he also compares injustice to loose soil like quicksand while human dignity is described as solid rock.

Example:  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.

clouds, fog and stars

In the most amazing example of all, Dr. King combines many different juxtapositions in one long metaphorical passage.  He compares prejudice to dark clouds and deep fog, while love and brotherhood are described as radiant stars that shine with scintillating beauty.

Example:  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.

blog - mlk - stars

I wonder what Dr. King would think of current race relations in the United States?  Although we have the first African-American president and have made great progress in improving civil rights for all minorities, I think we are still making strides on that journey.

If you are interested in more analyses of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” please check out the excellent annotations on the document from Stanford University at http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/resources/article/annotated_letter_from_birmingham/

For a fascinating color-coded analysis of rhetoric – pathos, ethos, and logos – in the letter, please see  http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/schultzmary/stories/storyReader$884.

Finally, for a brilliant analysis of metaphors used in Martin Luther King’s speeches, see the book Politicians and their Rhetoric: The Persuasive Power of Metaphor, 2nd edition, by Jonathan Charteris-Black.

Next time:  Balancing Acts