Martin Luther King Jr.: Letter to Birmingham Jail

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Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter to Birmingham Jail”, argues that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. King’s purpose is to explain how a just law should be followed, and how unjust laws, such as segregation, should not. He supports this claim by appealing to logos, ethos, and pathos.

King begins his letter by responding to his critics that his non-observance of laws is based on the fact of whether they are just or not, by appealing to logos. When King states, “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ as well as: ‘I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. Conversely one has the moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.” he constructs a concession/counterargument. This helps appeal to logos by first acknowledging that there are a some, white clergymen, who may disagree with his stance, but by painting segregation as “unjust”, he is able to counter these clergymen’s opinions, and prove that segregation needs to be abolished. Also, when King explains in a syllogism that laws that degrade the human personality are unjust, and segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality, therefore segregation is unjust. By illustrating deductive reasoning, King logically proves his assertion by giving the general example for what is “unjust” and portraying segregation as such, which can lead to no other conclusion than to abolish segregation. Finally, King appeals to logos through a reliance on authority. By using the clergymen’s beliefs against them, he mentions how both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine both agree that “an unjust law is no law at all” and a human law “that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”

King then continues his letter by appealing to ethos. When King states that he is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town” he builds up an association – a similarity – that relates himself with relevant authorities, such as Paul the Apostle....
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