patton - A Transforming Response: Martin Luther King Jr.s...

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A Transforming Response: Martin Luther King Jr.’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" Patton, John H. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 53-65 (Article) Published by Michigan State University Press DOI: 10.1353/rap.2004.0028 For additional information about this article Access Provided by Syracuse University at 08/24/10 6:24PM GMT http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/rap/summary/v007/7.1patton.html
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John H. Patton is Associate Professor and Fellow of Newcomb College, Department of Communication, at Tulane University in New Orleans, Lousiana. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 7, No. 1, 2004, pp. 53-66 ISSN 1094-8392 This essay examines the rhetorical situation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It argues that King’s “Letter” was an essential response for civil rights to continue as a mass movement in Birmingham and beyond. At a broader level, King’s “Letter” demonstrated the enactment of rhetorical trans- formation. By creative use of kairos and pathos the letter rebutted the claims of the moderate white clergy in Birmingham and changed King’s rhetorical persona and presence. The “Letter” transformed the idea of reasonableness from the province of moderation alone and united it with justifications for direct civil dis- obedience. Consequently, the “Letter” as rhetorical response opened a new pub- lic frame for pragmatic, value-based identification with civil rights for historical and contemporary audiences. A pril 1963 was not the first time the white clergy of Birmingham, Alabama, had issued a public statement about civil rights in their city. A few months earlier the same group of clergy had opposed the extreme tactics of the segregationist regime of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, epitomized by his famous stand in the door to prevent integration of the University of Alabama. The public position of these clergy represented the pathway of reasonableness, deliberation, and progress on civil rights to many white and some black business leaders in Birmingham. This view was buttressed by the fact that Albert Boutwell, a moderate in comparison with Eugene “Bull” Connor, won election as mayor of Birmingham, notwithstanding the refusal of Connor to actually relinquish office until the Alabama Supreme Court had ruled. It was in this context that the white clergy believed there was a legitimate possibility that segregation could be incrementally displaced. Precisely this motive seems to have been at the center of the now famous or infamous letter written by these clergy in April 1963, during King’s incarceration for leading civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. 1 A T RANSFORMING R ESPONSE : M ARTIN L UTHER K ING J R .’ S “L ETTER FROM B IRMINGHAM J AIL J OHN H. P ATTON
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King’s 1963 response “Letter” from jail stands as one of the foremost documents in civil rights discourse. Interestingly, it is a written document instead of the typi- cal oral form that King used. There is a further irony in that the initial impact of the “Letter” was virtually nil. Yet, as it became a widespread public document, its effects
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2011 for the course CRS 325 taught by Professor Richards during the Spring '08 term at Syracuse.

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patton - A Transforming Response: Martin Luther King Jr.s...

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