“A Homemade Education” by Malcolm X and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by M.L. King have both similar and different features. King seems to use stronger rhetorical technique (logic, emotion, credibility) than Malcolm X. Both literary works are addressed to various types of audience. King appeals to his clergymen, and this letter “was his response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South” (p.1). This fact explains the official tone of the letter, while Malcolm X writes his “A Homemade Education” in simple words, which can be understood by ordinary people without any special educational background. This aspect of simplicity makes Malcolm’s work more appealing to the majority of ordinary readers. Apart from these differences, both authors have a common purpose: help overcome racial prejudice and urge Black people to stand up for their civil and human rights.
It is noteworthy to consider the rhetorical techniques used in both literary works in more detail. King masterfully applies ethos, pathos, and logos to his statements. His ethos has the following forms in the letter. Firstly, he writes the letter to respond to the Alabama clergy who find King’s protest in Birmingham “unwise and untimely” (p.1). Although the clergymen present King as an “outsider,” he rejects this claim, saying that he “has the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South…” (p.1)
Besides, King justifies his actions by drawing parallels with the Prophets and the Apostle Paul. Referring to historical personalities, like Hitler, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Socrates, he proves that it is right to fight against oppression of human rights. Malcolm X also refers to some historical figures and events to present his ethos. He lists Herodotus, Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization,” Well’s “Outline of History,” refers to the “slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of god into the white slave master” and the Opium War on China, as well as the British Invasion to India (p.8). Mr. Elijah Muhammad taught Malcolm X “how history had been “whitened”” (p.4), which was the hardest stroke for him.
He describes two parts of the community – “a force of complacency and a force of bitterness and hatred” (p. 4) – and implies that he did not allow the latter to resolve a conflict in a violent way. Since Malcolm X does not justify his actions but simply tells how he acquired “a homemade education,” his logos is rather weak. Nonetheless, he clearly shows the readers that books completely changed his life, and the wisdom he took from them helped him make his arguments reasonable and profound.
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Presumably, this is explained by the fact that he took a direct part in the protest and witnessed black people’s oppression, humiliation, and suffering. The part of the letter, where King ponders upon the issue of “untimely actions,” constantly using the word “when,” has an immense emotional appeal. Even a few lines would be enough to feel King’s painful agony, when he describes the inhumane treatment of black people: “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your fathers and mothers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sister with impunity…” (p.2) Malcolm’s painful experience of violent treatment comes mainly from books and illustrations, which make his pathos weaker than King’s.
All things considered, from the rhetorical standpoint, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by M.L. King is stronger than “A Homemade Education” by Malcolm X, which is explained by King’s personal involvement into the issues he describes. Both authors revolt against racism since it is viewed as an encroachment on human innate rights, regardless of skin color.