Letter from Birmingham Jail

Topics: Rhetoric, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. Pages: 5 (767 words) Published: March 23, 2009
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Mr. King uses many

rhetorical situations and persuasive appeals. King writes this letter, in my opinion, to the

audience of the American people. I feel the persuasive techniques, the structuring of the

sentence and the content expressed was intended to force the American white middle class’

eyes open to the blatant disregard of the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 - outlawing

segregation in public schools. A short minded assessment of the letter may conclude that the

letter was solely written as a response to a statement titled “A Call for Unity”, made by eight

white Alabama clergymen. Though his heartfelt vividly emotional accounts and the eloquent

semblance of rhetoric is addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen”, it is my opinion he

composed the letter to be contemplated by a much larger audience. This paper will discuss the

rhetorical triangle used by King in the form of ethos (ethics), pathos (emotional content) and

logos (logic).

Let us consider the ethos or ethical form of communicating to ones audience. Ethos is

defined as “a rhetoric technique used to directly appeal to an authority in order to strengthen

your argument”. (Wikipedia.org ). This form of written or verbal communication is used with

the intention of showing the reader that the speaker or writer has moral character. King

uses ethos frequently in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The reference that struck me the

deepest was when King described the seemingly ethical use of written yet unjust laws by Adolph

Hitler. King writes, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was

“legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal”. It was

“illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” (King 4). This statement in Mr. King’s

letter serves to ask the eight clergymen to look into their own hearts and individually reflect on

whether they are blind sheep following unjust laws directed toward the southern negro. I feel

King’s ability to reference extreme ethical issues as a comparison to how the negro has been

treated is a powerful tool to get his point across.

Next let’s discuss the logos or logical wedge of writing. Logos is defined as “thought,

speech, account, meaning, reasoning, proportion, principle, standard or logic”. (Wikipedia.org).

Logic makes the writer or speaker seem prepared or knowledgeable. Logic is hard to

manipulate; therefore it is more difficult to argue against. Logos is used throughout King’s letter

although never more affective than in this statement, “Negroes have experienced grossly unjust

treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches

in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case.”

( King 1 ). Mr. King pins his readers down with this statement like the pinning of a wrestler to

the mat tapping out for mercy because submission is the only recourse. His words are non-

refutable, and the emotions attached to his statement are easily experienced by the reader.

Pathos or the emotional content is the final but most effective method of communication.

Pathos is the “band-wagon” ( wikipedia.org ) approach to manipulating your reading to act

in a certain fashion. The author attempts to have you jump on his band-wagon thus joining the

writer in the belief that this is a commonly held conviction. Pathos is used further along in a

letter, story or article. I look at Pathos as the hook that is dug deep into your heart after the

writer’s credibility has been established and your ethical emotional door has been opened ever so

slightly. This next reference is by far the most effective rhetorical tool used by King, “But when

you have seen vicious mobs lynch...
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