Even the most cursory analysis of "Letter From Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. and "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift reveals glaring differences between the two essays. Surprisingly, a side-by-side comparison also yields many similarities between the two works.
The most obvious similarity between the two essays is the overarching theme of the subject matter. In both essays, the writers address deeply-entrenched social injustices. For example, in "Letter From Birmingham Jail", King, in his highly-impassioned and evocative style, submits a powerful essay that addresses racial segregation in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s. In his letter, King mentions that the brutal history of the "American Negro's" trials and tribulations measured by the impact of the social injustices that they had suffered were traceable to the era of slavery, a history that had rooted long before President Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" was written (5).
According to King, "Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here." (5). King makes it clear that social inequality and injustice were an integral part of the history of blacks in America.
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Similarly, Swift's "A Modest Proposal" addresses class inequalities between the rich and the poor in Ireland, and the social injustices that were commonplace between the upper and lower class. His focus is mainly directed toward the suffering of children who "in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance" (1). Like King, Swift has a grasp of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, i.e. the rich and the poor, the ruling elite and the rest, "the beggars", as he terms them. By proposing to solve the problem of rampant poverty in a ruthless, unconscionable fashion, he is often obliquely, sometimes directly, and always facetiously calling into question the conscience -- or lack thereof -- of an upper class that would allow such abject conditions in the first place.
On the other hand, King's essay undertakes a serious examination of the theme of racial segregation in the South and outlines a path that the "American Negro" must take in order to liberate himself from the oppression, humiliation, and brutality caused by the practices of racial segregation between whites and blacks. King said, "You may well ask, 'Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action" (2).
Swift takes a different route altogether during the course of his "proposal". He uses satire to impress his points upon the reader....