Since the early centuries, society has greatly dealt with segregation within their communities. In turn, many individuals sought to bring notable changes by fighting those who prevented them from obtaining their freedom. Some of these people included twentieth-century civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, who expressed their ideas and beliefs on segregation through their respective notable essays, Letter from Birmingham Jail and Letter from the South. Both works deal with racial issues that they had encountered with during their time but from different perspectives and techniques. Of the two pieces, King constructs a much stronger and organized argument of justifying the nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham that enhances his overall effect on the audience through literary devices and techniques such as cause and effect, logos, and pathos.
King’s essay Letter from Birmingham Jail was penned in response to the eight clergymen’s unjust proposals. He aimed to end racial inequality in the South, specifically in Birmingham, by promoting nonviolent demonstrations. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi’s works concerning the concept of civil disobedience, King argued that individuals have the moral duty to defy unjust laws. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality” (687). King believes that this “injustice” is powerfully present in Birmingham and wishes it would permanently fade away in the South. However, he realizes the obstacles the Negro community needs to overcome to achieve their goal. He writes, “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known” (684). King states that there is absolutely nothing else the Negro population in Birmingham could do because their attempts to negotiate with the officials have not effectively succeeded. By mentioning how Birmingham is the “most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” King indirectly expresses the need for change in society at the worst places. Furthermore, he justifies his argument and reasoning for promoting the nonviolent demonstrations because, “as the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained” (684). By doing so, King shows the audience that he and his followers have attempted to reason and talk with their oppressors, only to be dealt with in rejection. Therefore, King leads up to his primary goal of the letter to stress that these actions are necessary to create a “beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue” (685).
King uses various techniques to enhance his arguments. He directly addresses his opponents, who are the clergymen, and references a specific part of their argument to analyze and debunk. He then continues and elaborates his argument through the clever use of cause and effect to effectively present his viewpoint on the issue at hand. For example, he writes, “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws” (687). King directly addresses his audience to capture their attention. This acts as a springboard and allows him to lead into a further discussion of morality and laws. He portrays situations where laws can and should be broken to create his argument and justify the demonstrations in Birmingham. Furthermore, King also utilizes the technique of cause and effect to develop his argument. This is evident in his discussion of the necessity of direct action because the white community in power failed to acknowledge the black people’s peaceful requests and attempts at negotiation. In essence, King is suggesting that the only possible action to be taken by the black race is to force “open the door to negotiation” (685).
In the essay Letter from the South, Baldwin introduces the problem of education among black children, which is a commonly disputed topic during this time period. The black community obviously believes that black children deserve the same right to education as white children. However, Baldwin suggests that the white political power is against the education of blacks because educated blacks would pose a threat to their power. He mentions that the problem “has actually nothing to do with education” (199). The problem is not concerned with the actual process of educating blacks or whites, but the fact that an educated black population could pose a threat to the white population’s way of life. An educated black community would be a stronger factor in fighting for equal rights. Furthermore, he highlights that though the white claim that the problem of segregation has been solved and that race relations are “excellent,” the blacks believe otherwise (200). He noted that the problem was that because the whites had political power, they simply bent the rules and assigned one black student to each of the all-white schools, thus making them “integrated.” Furthermore, Baldwin notes that “men do not like to be protected, it emasculates them” (208). However, this supports his argument that white men refuse to give black children a proper education because without knowledge, they will always be dependent on the white man. This dependence is essentially the same as being “protected” by the white man. He uses this concept to lead into the idea that both the South and the North have distorted and incorrect views of the black man. “The South images that it ‘knows’ the Negro, the North imagines that it has set him free” (208). Baldwin suggests that the nation is utterly confused on both topics of political power and sex and that the relationship and interaction between whites and blacks clearly illustrates this idea.
Baldwin structures his argument in a unique way, by first presenting the problems facing both blacks and whites. In this specific instance, he discusses how the segregation in the South is improperly dealt with. Rather than actually integrating the schools, the white population is in control and chooses to simply put one black child in each all-white school to add diversity. Moreover, he explains how the education system is at an extremely low level for whites, but the black education level is even lower. He uses this comparison to display the large disparity between the education of blacks and whites. In highlighting this gap, Baldwin further stresses the inferior conditions that Negros has to suffer through. This example also highlights one reason why the white population is very adamant about maintaining power politically and socially. Baldwin is able to instill in the reader the notion that political power is linked with knowledge in a subtle fashion. Furthermore, he connects this to the situation of a master and his slaves. He describes the situation of how a black man is much more appealing and “more erotic beauty” than the white man does. The white man feels that his manliness and power is being threatened by the black man’s presence, which often leads to the black man “sexless, hanging from a tree!” (204). Baldwin structures his letter to address the issues in a more subtle and indirect manner by presenting examples that portray the values and meanings that he intended. After setting the reader into a more sympathetic mood, he leads in to the real message at hand, which is that “the Negro vote has no power in the state” (206). The extensive power of white officials is demonstrated through the example of how “when six Negro ministers attempted to create a test case by ignoring the segregation ordinance on the buses, the governor was ready to declare martial law and hold the ministers incommunicado” (207).
Despite valid arguments and positions from both King and Baldwin, it seems evident that King’s case is slightly more plausible because he utilizes both logic and emotional appeal to convince his audience in a simplistic manner. Baldwin’s line of reasoning, on the other hand, is much more complex and focuses more on the emotional appeal, which can slightly detract from the effectiveness if used a great deal. King uses logos and pathos effectively to construct his arguments while Baldwin utilizes mostly pathos. King gradually develops the concept that the demonstrations were foreseeable and necessary. He states, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power left the Negro community with the no alternative” (684). Through his idioms, “unfortunate” and “no alternative,” King is able to efficiently stress to the audience that the Negro population in Birmingham could not do anything else to stop the problem. After formulating this declaration, he continues with an argument pertaining to the crucial steps of any nonviolent campaign. His analysis of the conflict between the black and white populations in Birmingham is utilized through logos. He sees injustice as the primary cause that initiated the fuel between the two divided races. King’s use of logic makes his argument much stronger than Baldwin’s piece because the latter fails to present his case based on facts and reasons. In addition to his effective use of logic, King also utilizes emotional appeal is his piece, which is also called pathos. In this essay, he frequently mentions the act of “nonviolent campaign” to fight his cause. In this specific case, he creates the concept that “nonviolent tension” will “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (685). He cleverly presents his point of view through brilliant word choice such as “majestic heights” to persuade the reader. He believes nonviolent action can be used through negotiation. Thus, he believes actions such as this can open the door to a more peaceful compromise. This coupling of logic and emotions makes King’s organized argument more effective than Baldwin’s piece based primarily on the use of pathos.
In terms of the main idea in their works, both King and Baldwin present the same ideal for America, a place where fighting injustice. Baldwin is an opinionated individual, who uses creative writing to illustrate his ideas and beliefs. King is more passionate, in a sense he uses more biblical and historical references, and literary devices when he is challenging the justice and law. This makes King the more convincing writer because of the way he constructs his arguments in the essay. All in all, these two distinctive African-American writers have contributed to the dramatically changed America. They helped end segregation and brought unity to all the races. Without their contributions, America would probably be not the way it is currently.