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Letter From Birmingham Jail Group questions

The letter from the eight white clergymen, A Call for Unity, was published in a
Birmingham, Alabama newspaper. Letter from Birmingham Jail is a response to
the clergymens letter. Letter from Birmingham Jail was written by another
clergyman, The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Both letters try to persuade their
readers, so they have a common rhetorical purpose. The letters do not, however,
try to persuade the readers the same way. The letters are quite different in tone, in
style, in length, in rhetorical appeal, and in argument. And, even though the letters
share a common purpose of persuasion, they differ greatly in their persuasive goals
and in the methods they use to reach those goals. They even, to some extent,
differ in terms of the audiences they want to persuade.
Much of argumentative writing centers around rhetoric, the art of persuasion.
Writers use certain rhetorical devices to engage and persuade their readers.
Generally, we think of persuasion in terms of three rhetorical appeals. Aristotle
categorized these appeals as appeals based on locig (logos), ethics (ethos), or
emotions (pathos). In his essay, Introduction: About the essay on pages 1-17 of
The Dolphin Reader Douglas Hunt also refers to rhetorical appeals, or rhetorical
levels, but he uses different (but parallel) terms: logical, social, and visceral.
As you read Letter from Eight White Clergymen and Letter from Birmingham Jail,
your goal is to evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of each letter. As you evaluate
the letters, you must analyze how and why the letters work. To accomplish this
task, you will want to consider the following:
1. Audience: Who are the letters trying to reach? What kind of people are
these? How could you describe their values and their belief systems? Are
the letters written to more than one audience? If so, how and why? Do the
audiences differ? If so, how so? How is the purpose connected with the
audience in each letter? That is, how does the intended audience for each
letter influence the way the letter is written?
2. Purpose: What are the authors trying to accomplish? Whats the goal of each
letter? How have the authors considered audience as they planned
strategies for achieving their purpose?
3. Tone: What word would best express the authors attitude toward the subject
of the letter? Toward the audiences of the letters? Much of what we consider
tone in writing rests with the words an author chooses and the connotation
and level of intimacy conveyed by those words. What kinds of words do the
authors use, and how and why do they use of those particular words? To
what end? What kind of relationship do the authors want to create with the
readers? With the author(s) of the other letter?
4. Format: Both letters are formatted as letters. Are they the same kind of
letters? How are the letters alike and how are they different? Letters are
usually addressed by someone. To whom is each letter addressed, and how

does the salutation (or lack of salutation) contribute to the desired purpose,
tone, and audience impact?
5. Method of Distribution: The clergymens letter was published in a newspaper.
Why do you think the clergymen chose to send the letter to a local
newspaper rather than to King himself? Find out how Kings letter was
initially distributed and analyze how and why King may have chosen the
initial method of distribution and subsequent methods of distribution. What
does the initial distribution reveal about the goals of the writers?
6. Authors: Who wrote each of the letters? What kind of people were the
authors who wrote A Call for Unity? What kind of person was King? What
motivated the authors to write the letters? What were they interested in?
What was important to them? What kind of backgrounds did they come from
and what were their hopes for the future?
7. Constraints (the beliefs, attitudes, habits and traditions the limited the
authors): What is the specific historical context for the letters? What was
going on in Birmingham, Alabama at this time? What was going on in the
South? In the nation? In the world? How did the constraints of time and
place affect the writers of the letters? What beliefs, attitudes and traditions
were in place at the time of the writing? If the letters were written to multiple
audiences, do the audiences share the same cultural, social, and religious
constraints? Other constraints? How did these constraints influence the
writing of the letters? The method of distribution of the letters?
8. Organization: How do the authors organize the information in their letters?
How and why do they order the information in the way it appears in the
letters? What effect does the organizational pattern achieve? How and why?
9. Logical appeals and logical arguments: What logical arguments appear in the
letters? In what order? Do the authors present clear arguments based on
evidence and reasons? Do they rely on careful, scaffolded, seemingly
inevitable conclusions based on evidence? Can the reliability/validity of the
evidence or the logic of the arguments be challenged? Are the logical
appeals compelling? How and why?
10.Emotional appeals and visceral responses: Emotional appeals touch our
hearts by creating images, telling stories, establishing empathy and
sympathy, and moving us emotionally. Do the authors rely on emotional
appeals in their letters? To what extent? Why? How?
11.Ethical appeals and social impact: Ethical appeals take two forms. One form
of ethical appeal is related to the credibility of the author. How reliable is he?
Should we trust him? Why? What kind of credentials does he have? What
right does he have to be speaking on this issue? Is he an authority in this

field/What makes him an authority? A second form of ethical appeal is

related to the morality of an argument: we should do this because its the
just/fair/appropriate/legal/ethical course of action. Do the authors present
ethical appeals? Are they strong appeals that speak to our sense of justice?
How and why?