Tuesdays & Thursdays
November 20, 2012
Rhetorical Response – Letter from Birmingham Jail
The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was composed on April 16, 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his jail cell, during his brief incarceration. Dr. King's letter was written as a direct response to an open letter [which criticized his activity]; signed by eight white clergymen and published in the Birmingham News. Further, Dr King’s indirect audience was the United States (U.S.) White Moderate class. In his letter Dr. King made very effective use of the three rhetorical appeals: ethos, pathos, and the abundant use of logos in describing the Whites injustice to Blacks. Dr. King use of ethos is indirect. Dr. King’s direct audience is that of religious and learned men, therefore ethos is established through the use of religious and intellectual codes. The codes are illustrated as follows: “…to my Christian and Jewish brothers” followed with references to the Apostle Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, the United States Supreme Court and St Augustine; the use of those code words established Dr. King as a religious, intellectual and highly educated man. He begins by justifying his presence in Birmingham. He touches on the organizational ties between his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the invitation extended to him. This set the stage for the letter’s most power message. Using a court room metaphor he made most effective and frequently use of the logos appeal; particularly in disabusing his audience of the erroneous charge suggested that Dr. King was an outside agitator causing problems with local Blacks and the condescending so called “…unwise and poor timing…” of the Black protests. He used logic and provided substantial evidence to clear him of this charge, with a highly effective closing argument that even if by some slim chance he were deemed an outside...
Cited: Jr. King, Martin Luther "Letter from Birmingham Jail” from the book The Reader. James C McDonald (Second Edition). Urbana: Pearson (2012): 164-173.
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