6 November 2014
Letter From Birmingham Jail
Most people know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from his famous “ I have a dream” speech, but what about his letter from Birmingham jail? In the city of Birmingham, many civil rights activists organized sit ins, marches, and protests against racism. These nonviolent demonstrations were coordinated by Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King was the president of. Therefore, as an active participant and leader of these nonviolent validations, MLK Jr. was harshly imprisoned in the Birmingham jail. From this jail, he hand wrote a letter as a response to a newspaper article written by eight white clergymen criticizing King and his methods. In this letter he defended the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism arguing that people have the right to break unjust laws for moral reasons. To make his argument effective and powerful, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the techniques of ethos, pathos, and logos. The most addressed and effective strategy that King used was ethos. Ethos is a word derived from the Greek origin meaning character (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc). This appeal often shows the authors image and opinion of certain situations. The goal of this approach is to gain authority and trustworthiness from the readers by speaking knowledgably about the subject. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believes that the
Mumley 2 audience will be more convinced of the information being told if the author has good sense, good moral character, and goodwill (Edlund). The first example that demonstrates ethos comes from the opening line of the letter, “My dear Fellow Clergyman” (Martin Luther King Jr. 263). The important word in this salutation is “fellow”. By using this word Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. puts himself on an equal status and stature of the clergyman. Another illustration of MLK Jr. using ethos is shown through this quotation: I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. (Martin Luther King Jr. 264) By establishing that he is the president of a highly successful conference, he informs the readers of his power, which helps to attain credibility. Another important aspect of demonstrating ethos is quoting Bible verses and stories. Referencing religion and the Bible allows the clergymen to understand better from where King’s argument derives and grows from. One example from the letter states, “I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 268). This quotation achieves two things: One is it gives credibility to a Christian philosopher and two it declares King’s opinion. Agreeing with St. Augustine shows that King’s opinion is on the same level as a highly respected and well known Christian Saint. This demonstrates pathos. However, King’s belief alone deals with another technique, pathos.
King uses pathos to appeal to the audience’s emotions. The first way he achieves this is by invoking sympathy to make the readers feel what he himself is feeling, for example, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, …” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 263). This is the very first line of the letter and is used to set the tone for the audience. MLK Jr. is hoping to gain compassion by using a torturous word like “confined” to address the unpleasant entrapment in the jail. Another line from King’s letter that shows pathos states, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr 266)...
Cited: Edlund, John. “Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade” Web. 22 November 2014.
"ethos." Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. 23 Nov. 2014.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Eds. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 263-279. Print
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