“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a clearly written essay that explains the reasons behind, and the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience, and gently expresses King’s disappointment with those who are generally supportive of equal rights for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, more than any other figure, shaped American life from the mid-50s to the late 60s. This was a time when large numbers of Americans, barely recognized as such by sanctioned power, dared to dream of what the country could be at its best, in the face of what often was its worst.
For example, in December 1955, days after Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city’s rules mandating segregation on buses, a bus boycott was launched and King was elected as president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. As the boycott continued through 1956, King gained national prominence as a result of his exceptional oratorical skills and personal courage.
Despite attempts to suppress the movement, Montgomery buses were desegregated in December 1956, after the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional. King’s leadership took place during the most tumultuous period in America?s recent past. Under his guidance, the unfathomable goal of abolishing federal and state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination was accomplished in only a few short years.
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King’s factual and reasoned approach is intended to win his adversaries over by appealing to their consciences. King works with a rhetorical tradition not only because it is effectual but also because it resonates with the deepest aspect of his calling which was to spread the gospel of brotherhood and justice (152).
From his peaceful persuasion to imaginative solutions in changing times to the power of hope, optimism, nonviolence strategy, and finally, to the need for a great dream, these valuable applications are comprehensive instruments for taking courageous action under even the most difficult of circumstances. Above all, King follows his method of careful reasoning and is convinced that his arguments will persuade his audience (153).
King was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to aid in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Thus, he was there because injustice was present (154). He was not content with a system that saw his people or people of any color, as second class citizens. He set out to bring equality for people everywhere.
So often they had become victims of broken promises (155). As a result, he was determined to create an unstoppable organization, reshape a struggle, and with his articulated vision, craft a strategy that took defeats and turned them into victories. Although fellow clergymen urged him not to come to Birmingham, he could not sit idly and be unconcerned with the maddening demonstrations that were taking place.
King, quickly realized that the best strategy to liberate African-Americans and gain them rights was to use nonviolent forms of protest. He wanted to eliminate the use of violence as a means to manage and establish cooperative ways of interacting. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (154). After all, he knew that any violence on the part of his civil rights workers would lead to violent counterattacks from segregationists. He knew this would only lead his followers to injury and death.
“The purpose of our direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” (156).
Nonviolence put his followers on the moral high ground and made the brutality of racists very apparent. In this way, King won many allies and gained passages of the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965.
Not only did King concentrate on non-violence in order to liberate African-Americans, but he also felt it was necessary that his message be important to all people regardless of race or class. This explained his disillusionment with the white moderate. King confessed his disappointment with the white moderate for their devotion to order rather than to justice (161).
He had hoped that the white moderate would recognize that desegregation simply removes legal and social prohibitions. He knew that collective ideas were more creative and more profound. King hoped to awaken the white moderate from their great moral and political sleep that had deepened. He wanted them to recognize the continuing urgency for democracy. In the meantime, he was appalled by the silence of the moral people. As a result, people with ill will had utilized time much more effectively than had the people of good will (162).
I believe that Martin Luther King was one of the twentieth century’s most influential men and lived one of its most extraordinary lives. He represented a monumental undertaking: a monument to the many individuals and circumstances encountered in the effort to secure the fundamental rights of citizenship. Most importantly, King was a Christian minister, and his turn the other cheek philosophy represented some of the best principles for creating harmony among all people, regardless of race or religion.
He courageously rebelled against segregation and proved to be a dedicated young minister who continually embodied the depths of his faith and the magnitude of his wisdom. Though we lost him far too soon, his words and deeds continue to inspire, provoke, educate and comfort.
Example #2 – Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” on April 16, 1963. The logical and well put together letter was written as a response to a statement in the newspaper, which was written by some clergymen. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing the letter in order to defend his organization’s nonviolent strategies. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King uses the three principles of rhetoric(ethos, pathos, and logos) to defend his organization well.
In the first two paragraphs of the second page of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he uses ethos to vindicate the ways that his organization uses nonviolent resistance. King does have some automatic ethos due to him being known as a well educated and prominent African American figure. He was also known as a priest, and priests are generally known to be trustworthy. Nonetheless, King still builds ethos for himself.
He starts off by talking about events that he, and the people he is writing to, share. Some events that they shared was the participation in the mayoral election. King says, “Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day.” He was using this to defend his organization’s timing of action around the mayoral action because the clergymen kept arguing that their timing was bad.
Also, King starts off another ethos argument with, “Just as Socrates felt.” King is trying to expose that he, and his organization, are not the only ones that “see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice.” This example of ethos helps convey his reasonability in the matter and adds to his credibility when he talks about his matters of direct action. In all, he is defending his organization’s nonviolent ways.
King uses pathos, on page five, in order to back up his affiliation’s pacifist approaches. He does this by showing what the South would be like if they resorted to violent actions, and also how African Americans would trudge along if they were completely compliant to the segregation laws. King says, after discussing that they are nonviolent, “If this philosophy[of nonviolence] had not emerged, by now many streets of the south would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.” He is trying to convince the readers, through a vivid and emotion-provoking image, that nonviolence is the best way to handle the situation.
He says that “marches” and “pilgrimages to city hall” is the best, pacifist way for his affiliation, and all other African Americans to get out their “pent up resentments and latent frustrations.” Also, King says that the African Americans that have “adjusted to segregation” are “so drained of self-respect.” Again, King is pointing out that nonviolent direct action is the best way to go, and he is defending his organization’s strategies of nonviolent direct action. He does not want them to become compliant or violent, and he thinks being a pacifist in the situation is the best way to go.
Lastly, King utilizes logos, on page two, in order to further support his organization’s nonviolent strategies. He uses his examples in order to logically explain why nonviolent direct action works. King starts off by saying, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community…is forced to confront the issue.” Here, he is defining the goal of nonviolent direct action.
The goal is to aggravate the whites until they finally give in to negotiations. King is defending this way because he knows that violence is wrong, and will just lead to unnecessary spilling of blood. He also explains that “[nonviolence] seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” This is also a logical statement that supports his organization’s ideals of nonviolence.
Throughout the letter, King uses ethos, pathos, and logos. He takes up for his cause in Birmingham and his belief that nonviolent direct action is the best way to make changes happen. King has explained this through many examples of racial situations, factual and logical reasoning, and also allusions to Christianity.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a pleasure to read, and the tension of the civil rights movement during that time built quickly. On rereading, I had time to admire King’s strategies through the use of ethos, logos, and pathos. On reflection, I was able to understand and appreciate the way King expressed the significance of the civil rights movement.
This letter is unquestionable a work of art. It is not a simple letter, because it reveals a lot and shows a range of emotions, but is very easy to read. In the opening paragraph, King explains how he came across a letter that eight clergy members published in a local newspaper and proceeds to respond to their comments. King moves on in paragraphs 2 and 3 were he sets up his credibility and explains his reasons for being in Birmingham. The letter changes in paragraph four where we begin to see King’s use of metaphors: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny.”
King continues to explain his presence in Birmingham and begins to change the tone from introductory to confrontational. In paragraph 10 he raises questions that were not directly asked and proceeds to explain his actions. It is here King presents his argument in a definable logic. It is his purpose is to inform the clergy of a new body of knowledge. He includes the completeness and clarity of the knowledge presented by answering questions that had not been raised.
The purpose is to persuade the clergy to accept a new opinion on a matter of significance: “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
While the tension contributes powerfully to my engagement with the letter, the careful focus of the scene and action also contributes. The scene is paragraph 14 and specifically King’s use of pathos, including his use of metaphors: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” He does this in a way that refers to the logical order of the reasons he marshals to support the appeal for social change. King keeps the focus on his actions and appeals to emotion. It is here that he writes the longest sentence found in the letter.
He uses a dialog that reaches into the pit of your soul and places you on an emotional rollercoaster: ” when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammered as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky ”
Still another thing that adds to my interest in this letter and increases the tension for me as a reader is the ability King has on word play. King’s specific gestures and those of other actions in the letter help imagine what is going on. As I’ve said, some of the emotional appeals rip at your very soul. For example, he continues to explain the cruel punishment blacks receive and their reasons to demand change now. This specific paragraph appeals to me because it gave me a strong visual image, almost as real to me as the memory of observing actions like these or seeing a film of them.
In paragraph 16 we see him differentiate between just and unjust laws. In the closing the issue of just and unjust laws, paragraph 22, we learn that, “We should never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” ” King then expresses his disappointment with white moderates in paragraph 23 who, by opposing his program of nonviolent direct action, have become a barrier to progress toward racial justice. He acknowledges that his program has raised tension in the South, but he explains that tension is necessary to bring about change. Furthermore, he argues that tension already exists. But because it has been unexpressed, it is unhealthy and potentially dangerous.
He defends his actions against the clergymen’s criticisms, particularly their argument that he is in too much of a hurry. Responding to charges of extremism, King claims that he has actually prevented racial violence by channeling the natural frustrations of oppressed African Americans into nonviolent protest. He asserts that extremism is precisely what is needed now; but it must be creative, rather than destructive, extremism. He concludes by again expressing disappointment with white moderates for not joining his efforts as many other whites have.
In assessing King’s appropriateness I refer to paragraph 24 where King argues that if law and order fail to establish justice, “they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” The analogy asserts the following logical relationship: law and order are to progress toward justice what a dam is to water. King uses both analogy and authority in the following passage from paragraph 25: “Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquires precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?” Since Socrates is generally respected for his teachings on justice, his words and actions are likely to be considered appropriate to King’s situation in Birmingham.
In paragraph 27 King strengthens his argument by clarifying a meaning and dramatizing the point. For example, King supports his generalization that bitterness and hatred motivate some African American nationalist extremists by citing the specific example of Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Conversely, in paragraph 31, he refers to Jesus, Paul, Luther, and others as examples of extremists motivated by love and Christianity. These examples support his assertion that extremism is not in itself wrong, and that any judgement of it must be based on its motivation and cause.
King cites authorities repeatedly throughout his letter. He refers to religious leaders such as Jesus and Martin Luther and to American political leaders such as Lincoln and Jefferson. These figures were certain to show a high degree of credibility among the clergymen.
King continues his letter on the white moderate into paragraph 32 where he begins to close on that subject and go on to the next. In paragraph 33 he expresses his disappointment in the white church and its leadership. His strongest and appealing statement comes in paragraph 37 where he writes, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” King’s use of geographical statements can be seen in paragraph 38 were he writes, “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward.” This is effective in drawing the audience towards a geographical personification.
We get a dramatic and engaging argument in paragraphs 45, 46, and 47. Here King conveys his disappointment with the clergy for praising the actions of the police and ignoring the “real heroes.” King’s strongest sentence can be found in paragraph 47 where he mentions James Meredith and quotes Rosa Parks by writing, “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” He again uses the political structures of America by ending the paragraph with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
In the last three paragraphs, King closes his letter and mends any ill feelings that may have occurred. I especially like the sentence where he says, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
We know that the civil rights movement is significant in King’s letter because he tells us so, but beyond that we recognize that the event reveals something important about the images that plagued American society. King allowed us to gain insight into whom he was and what African Americans had to endure to ensure their freedom. Yet he emotionally and rationally provided mindful and well-presented perspectives.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was very persuasive to a wide variety of audiences. Not only did he directly address the writers of the newspaper article, but included fellow African Americans with their struggle to gain acceptance. What makes this letter persuasive, is the number of examples and situations described by Martin Luther King Jr. King also gains credibility by citing these sources without a history book, using only his own intellect that shows that he is not just your average man.
Martin Luther King Jr. directed his letter to the white clergymen of Birmingham, in a response to their newspaper article criticizing him for his actions. In the beginning, Martin Luther King Jr. states that he is in Birmingham for three reasons.
I along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. (King, Pg.2)
King has gone to where injustice is, and he is carrying the word of freedom with him, “Just as the prophets of the eighth century BC left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns.”(King, Pg.2) With that statement he is reaching to the religious part of the clergymen, stating that he is just like the ancient prophets, building his ethos with his audience.
Martin Luther King uses historical examples to prove his point, using logos that most intellectuals can understand, and then uses examples for any African American can understand. In paragraph 16, King talks about St. Thomas Aquinas and his definition of an unjust law. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.“(King, Pg.3) In Paragraph 21, “In the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.”(King, Pg.4)
He discusses Nebuchadnezzar and how people in that time refused to obey his laws because they were unjust, just as he did in Birmingham. Socrates, the Boston tea party, early Christians who gave their lives for their religion. These historical events gave King an edge in his persuasiveness. Now he isn’t just someone who has broken laws, now he is now just like all other famous ancient historical figures.
However, he also addresses his “Negro brothers” in paragraph 14, when he describes what it’s like to have to tell your children that they cant go somewhere or do something because they are black, or what it is like to watch as your family is beaten or lynched in front of your eyes. He is directing this at the black community of Birmingham by letting them know that he understands the injustice that is occurring and also letting the white people partially understand how wrong it is to be kept from somewhere just because of your color.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to recall historical events and his ability to relate to the common person give his writing a persuasiveness that no one person can ignore. He is an intelligent African American who has been jailed unjustly and still holds no grudges.
He uses historical facts and religious references as logos and pathos towards the white clergy and uses his pathos of being a black man in an unjust world to appeal to the black society being unfairly treated. Being able to direct at two significantly different audiences and still make a legitimate point makes this a very persuasive letter.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963 when African Americans were fighting for equality. You can tell that this letter was written in a different decade because of the vocabulary used throughout the letter itself. When writing this letter, King was trying to appeal to a higher source to show that the action that King and his people took, were necessary. King uses valid arguments throughout his piece using ethos, pathos, and logos to support his reasoning and behavior.
King uses ethos in his letter demonstrating how he is reasonable, knowledgeable, and moral. He shows he is knowledgeable by knowing Socrates, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal” (802).
He also shows his knowledge by comparing the events to Hitler, “…never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything that the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”(805). He shows he is moral through bringing to the reader’s attention, “I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen”(809).
King also shows he is reasonable that he points out that he, being who he is, is not perfect himself! “I am in a rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists”(809).
Along with using ethos, King also uses pathos. A prime example is when King writes, “ Before closing, I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence” (811).
This is a good example of pathos because it appeals to emotion and has enough power behind it to work someone’s nerve and allows the reader to choose a side to King’s argument. King’s main adjective for this letter is to persuade the reader into seeing his point of view of the wrongdoings of the whites. King uses imagery within his letter to make the pathos much stronger to the reader.
At the peak of the Civil War Movement in America on April 12th, 1963, eight Alabama clergymen made a public statement announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King’s protests in the streets should end because they promote “hatred and violence” (par. 5). The clergymen condemn using nonviolent disobedience to obtain civil rights for the black people in Birmingham and believe that if whites and blacks come together to discuss this issue, there will be a better outcome for everyone.
They also believed that Dr. King was just an “outsider” who wanted to stir up trouble in Birmingham (par. 3). During the time that the clergymen released their statement, Dr. Martin Luther King was in a Birmingham jail; arrested for protesting. While in his cell, Dr. King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to inform the clergymen that he had a right to be in Birmingham and there are moral, just, and deserving reasons behind his actions.
He uses rhetorical devices to persuade not only them, but the rest of the American people through the use of ethos (credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (reason). By using these various devices, Dr. King is able to effectively convey his letter to his audience and gain the support needed for the Civil War Movement.
During the 1960s in America, Dr. King served as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC, which operates in every southern state with its headquarters residing in Atlanta, Georgia, was formed to help push the abolishment of segregation and to end the oppression of blacks using nonviolent tactics.
There are 85 affiliated organizations across the south and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Dr. King along with the rest of the SCLC decided to come to Birmingham and assist ACMHR once a group member asked them to help engage in a nonviolent direct action program if necessary. Birmingham especially needed a call to action during this time since there was a strong prevalence of the KKK and brutality from the police officers and other law officials. Dr. King referred to Birmingham as “America’s worst city for racism” and made it his goal to bring justice and peace to all of its people, not only for the state but for the rest of the country.
In order to strengthen his argument and increase his credibility, Dr. King uses various forms of rhetorical devices in his letter. He uses parallelism when he says, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; …when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (383). The repeated use of “when you” emphasizes the countless ways blacks have been mistreated.
The use of parallelism really etches into the audience’s mind the seemingly never-ending hardships blacks face and the repetition makes it seem like a regular routine they endure. Dr. King also includes metaphors in his letter such as when he says he sees “twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” (383). This metaphor paints a visual picture in the audience’s mind of the oppression they go through that seems to have no door to escape.
They are forced to look at the privileges and freedoms that the white people in their community have, and there is no way for them to achieve it. Also, by saying they are confined in an airtight cage, it dehumanizes the blacks and subjects them to animals without any rights.
Since Dr. King used multiple rhetorical devices in his letter, the audience views his argument as more credible since he has personal experience with seeing the injustice blacks endure. By his use of parallelism and metaphors, the audience has a better understanding of Dr. King’s argument and therefore can sympathize with him and support his ultimate goal.
Dr. King is also able to grasp the reader’s attention and allow them to sympathize with what black people have endured throughout America with the use of pathos. By vividly describing the violence, injustice, and brutality Dr. King has witnessed or experienced, the audience is able to better understand the issue at hand and therefore will more likely side with his standpoints and actions as opposed to the clergymen. In response to the clergymen’s opinion that the Birmingham police are keeping order and preventing violence, Dr. King says, “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the policemen if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes.” it clearly broadcasts the image in the reader’s mind (391). Using the words “sinking their teeth”, “unarmed”, and “nonviolent” causes the audience to truly see the inhumane brutality behind the police’s actions towards people who are peacefully protesting.
The people are able to see that while the police claim they are providing protection for the community, they are actually only doing harm. Dr. King also tells his audience that discrimination and segregation affect everyone when he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (380). This shows that everyone, regardless of race, is affected by the injustice occurring in the 1960s. If a group of people is oppressed, the rest of the population cannot progress or succeed. Knowing this, the audience will be more inclined to contribute to social change.
Dr. King puts the effect of segregation and racism on society as a whole into perspective and the readers are now able to see this barrier that keeps society from advancing too. From his use of pathos, the reader is able to better agree with the point being made and better able to sympathize with Dr. King and the millions of other people that experience this injustice. If Dr. King hadn’t chosen phrases and sentences that appeal to the reader’s emotions, he wouldn’t have received such strong support and understanding behind his actions and everyone else’s during the Civil Rights Movement. The audience was therefore more inclined to sympathize with the blacks and the treatment they have received than the clergymen and the government officials.
To effectively have the clergymen and the rest of the American people believe and side with his arguments, Dr. King must have sufficient facts and reason. In order to do this, he uses logos when he says, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.” (381). By providing his audience with unarguable facts that provide evidence of the excessive violence in Birmingham, Dr. King not only improve his credibility and trust but enhances his overall argument.
Dr. Martin Luther King was an extremely prominent and influential member of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. He was able to effectively show the American people the injustices the black community faced, why nonviolent protests were crucial to the movement, and what needed to be changed to bring equality and peace to America.
Without his use of rhetorical devices, his audience would not be able to truly grasp the argument he was conveying, thus the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t be as successful and monumental as it ended up being. Using ethos, pathos, and logos made his letter more credible, logical, and better to understand and sympathize with. If Dr. King had not written such a strong and effective letter from the use of rhetorical devices, the strength of the Civil Rights Movement uproar and momentum that it is remembered today would be diminished.
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