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Ethos, Pathos, Logos in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

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How would society progress without opposition? This is a fundamental value that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr upholds when he is standing up for what is right. In the spring of 1963, the Birmingham police imprisoned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for participating in a nonviolent protest against segregation. From the Birmingham jail, King wrote this famed letter. He wrote the letter in response to a public statement degrading King’s use of peaceful protest released by eight white clergymen of the south. By examining King’s utilization of pathos, ethos, and logos in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I argue that King defends his approach to oppose segregation.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes many rhetorical strategies in his work, “Letter from Birmingham Jail ”, and one of these is pathos. He employs pathos to gain sympathy from the clergymen and every white person reading the letter. He desires for everyone who reads this letter to support him in his efforts to gain equality for Negros. One specific application of pathos in the letter is King’s description of what he has endured and what all Negros have endured in America. This helps the audience understand why Negro people find it a challenge to wait on equality instead of fight for it. King exhibits pathos in the letter when he appeals to the audience’s love and respect for their family members. He recounts how he has to explain the injustice Negro people experience every day to his children once they realize that they are treated unfairly. He explains a specific situation he had to face with his daughter by saying, “…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tear swelling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky…” (King). Children do not automatically understand unfair situations, so when they are discriminated against they begin to resent privileged people. This description automatically makes the audience sympathize as if they have to explain this to their children. When they reflect on this, they begin to support King in his values because King forces the audience to put themselves in his shoes. As they do this, they begin to realize that they cannot begin to understand the pain King and his people have gone through throughout the years in America. This helps King gain support through the use of pathos in the letter.

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Along with describing these encounters with his children, King appeals to the audience’s respect for their family members by illustrating the lack of respect society gives them daily. For example, King writes, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim… and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”… — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King). It is a very common value to respect elders and to also please them. In many instances, respect is given to elders or people in authority through the usage of titles such as “Mrs.” or “Mr.”. King appeals to the audience by making them reflect on how they would feel if they saw their mother, whom they love, disrespected in such away. Another part of respecting elders in this quote displayed is the fact that many elders were lynched solely for their skin color. This also makes the audience reflect on how they would feel if they were in the same situation as the Negro people, and think about how they would react if this was their parents. Whenever the audience can put themselves in King’s or other Negros’ shoes, they begin to sympathize with and support King in his fight for equality. King’s use of pathos clearly defends his approach to combat social injustice by appealing to the audience’s sympathetic side.

Another rhetorical device that King employs throughout this letter is ethos. The reason for the ethos in the letter is to build King’s credibility with the audience and to appeal to the audience’s morality. Therefore, the audience will start to support his approach to opposing society and its laws. One way King establishes his credibility to the audience, the white clergymen, is by displaying his knowledge about many historical figures and what they did to help society. The establishment also appeals to the audience’s morals because the clergymen obviously believe strongly in American values. To prove his point, King explained that many of the most famous representatives of these values were extremists including figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. These people are extremely respected by Americans, and they have done so much good for the country as a whole. Abraham Lincoln helped win the Civil War for the Union and end slavery. Thomas Jefferson was one of the head people in writing the Declaration of Independence and helping the colonies gain their independence from England. Both of these people were extremists in their areas of expertise. He utilizes these two people as examples to explain how he is proud to be labeled as an “extremist” because these two people before him were labeled as extremists as well. He also says, “So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be ” (King). He proves his credibility by comparing himself, an extremist, to two men who are loved for their extremism. The establishment of King’s credibility through the utilization of ethos helps him gain his audience’s support in his approach to protest.

Another way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeals to his audience’s morality and helps himself gain credibility is by using Christian values and Bible passages. King utilizes these values to help establish his argument that his choice of peaceful protest should be supported. He uses his knowledge of Christianity and Bible passages to place himself on the same level as the white clergymen. One example King utilizes is the Bible passage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He uses this passage to highlight an example of civil disobedience in the Bible by saying, “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved” (King). He compares his approach of civil disobedience to this Bible passage, so he could appeal to the clergymen, who would completely understand this story and its importance. The clergymen should then understand why this peaceful protest and civil disobedience are needed to fight for equality. He also gave credit to early Christians for performing civil disobedience by writing, “It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire” (King). As King appeals to the audience’s Christain morals, he also helps to build his credibility with his audience. He utilizes Christianity and Bible passages to help elevate himself in the audience’s eyes to being equal. The prominence of ethos in this letter aids in the establishment of his credibility as well as appeals to the morals of the audience to make the audience support King’s tactic to oppose segregation.

Lastly, King supports his perspective through the usage of logos. The reason for logos in this letter to the white clergymen is to appeal to their logical reasoning. The logical statements King makes in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” helps to prove his point as to why he chooses to protest in the way he does. One of the examples of logos in this letter is the explanation of an unjust law. He defines an unjust law through the statement of “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all”… A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King). He utilizes the definition of unjust law to allude to these laws in Alabama. One such law brought up in the letter is how there are methods put into place to prevent the registration of Negro voters. This demonstrates that the laws in this state could not be considered democratic since most of the population cannot be registered to vote. This is a logical argument, and with these facts, the audience would have an extremely difficult time trying to fight it. As Americans, it is assumed that the audience values democracy, so it would be important to solve any injustices in the democratic system. The utilization of logos in describing an unjust law and giving an example of its prominence in Alabama helps King gain support in his choice to pursue nonviolent protests.

King furthers his discussion of unjust laws to provide the audience with another logical argument to support his stance. He explains in his letter that some laws are superficially just, but unjust in their application. King justifies this statement by explaining, “For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust” (King). He states that the law that got him arrested for parading without a permit preserves segregation and deprives American citizens of their First Amendment rights. The First Amendment provides the American people with the freedom of assembly, and this Amendment is thoroughly valued in American society. King mentions the First Amendment to explain why he had a right to assemble in protest of the injustice he experiences daily, even though there is an ordinance that states that anyone who parades needs to have a permit. He previously explains in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself” (King). This quote supports his argument that he was arrested unjustly because the law he “broke” was established unjustly. The explanation is a logical argument because King utilizes many forms of evidence in the Constitution and Alabama’s laws. King also specifically mentions this explanation of an unjust law to help acquire more support for his chosen tactic of peaceful protest. The audience will see through Dr. King’s explanation of an unjust law that many laws applied in their society are utilized by the state government to allow segregation. Due to this, these laws should not apply in King’s fight for justice. This thought process will help King’s movement gain supporters. Throughout this letter, King provides many strong arguments to support his stance on peaceful protest, and many of these arguments are based on logic. Thus providing the audience with logos.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is sitting in Birmingham Jail, he utilized this time to emotionally, ethically, and logically explain his approach to combating the social issue of segregation. He utilized this explanation as a response to the shame a few white clergymen voiced in a public statement. King’s employment of logos, ethos, and pathos helps him and his movement gain support from the audience, as well as explain the reasoning behind his approach to protest.

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