Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

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At the height of Dr. Martin Luther King’s influential time during the Civil War Movement, eight clergymen announced a testimony against him that his protests should be ended because they promote “hatred and violence” (King). During this time King was in Birmingham Jail because he had been arrested for protesting. While in jail, he wrote his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to reach out to the clergymen and reinforce his belief that he had a right to be in Birmingham too, and that there are morals behind his actions. Based on the specific phrases and certain tactics he uses to appeal to the reader’s emotions, King received outstanding support and understanding as a result of his actions. Therefore, readers of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” are more inclined to sympathize and get behind his argument, because the treatment that African-Americans continued to receive over time was simply unjust. Throughout his letter, King uses rhetorical devices to persuade not only the clergymen but also the rest of America through the use of pathos and is ultimately able to effectively convey his beliefs and gain the support needed for the Civil War Movement to take way.

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King had a history of working to abolish segregation and end the oppression of blacks during the 1960s when he first started using his nonviolent tactics alongside the Southern Christain Leadership Conference. The group had decided to come to Birmingham because of the strong prevalence of brutality from police officers, and its stigma of racism. King made it his goal to bring peace and justice to everyone by grasping the reader’s attention and encouraging them to sympathize with what African-Americans have endured throughout their lives. By distinctly describing the injustice and brutality King has experienced, the audience can better understand the issue at hand and will be more likely to side with him as opposed to the clergymen. Martin Luther King Jr. first appeals to pathos by showing the trials his people have gone through. To strengthen his argument, King uses parallelism when he says, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” (King), and “when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters.” King utilizes repetition of the phrase “when you”, to emphasize all of the ways African-Americans have been mistreated. By using this kind of language and sentence structure, King is making the reader envision and feel the neverending hardships that blacks face, and the repetition shows how regularly these people endured this treatment. Through his argument, readers can see that even though the police claim to provide protection, they are ultimately hurting society and causing segregation and discrimination amongst all people, regardless of race. King puts this all into perspective and readers are truly able to see how all of these events have kept society from moving forward. Throughout the whole paragraph, King uses metaphors to create imagery to make the audience get a sense of what it would be like to be in his position and the oppression they have to go through. They are forced to look at the privileges that white people in their community have, and how there is no way for them to obtain them. The use of emotion at the beginning of his letter captures the audience's attention, and they can get a better understanding of the pain he felt, therefore being able to sympathize with him and support his ultimate goal. King later appeals to pathos again by emphasizing the need for urgency and gives his opinion on the praise that some people were giving the police by addressing it head-on based on what he saw in the situation. He states, “I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment. . . if you were to watch them push old Negro women and young Negro girls. . .if you were to see them slap and kick. . . refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”(King) This emotional description of the event, along with the use of “you”, has a captivating effect on the reader, and through the use of his personal experiences, he can express the brutality brought upon by the police force. Overall, the tone of the last section is especially emotional and he advocates for readers to have a sense of concern.

Overall, Dr. Martin Luther King was an extremely well-known, influential figure during the Civil Rights Movement. He was able to effectively show the American people the injustices that African-Americans faced, why nonviolent protests were a crucial part of accelerating the movement, and what needed to be changed to bring peace and equality to America. His use of imagery and personal experiences throughout the letter ultimately makes a strong, well-rounded argument. By encouraging a sense of sympathy through strong emotional appeals, King brings hope for a positive change in society, and that the clergymen will begin to understand the overlying problem and work for change. Without his use of pathos, the audience would not have truly grasped his argument because there would not be that sense of emotion that would evoke the call to action that he was trying to enforce, and the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have been as successful. Ultimately, that is the be-all, end-all goal – to bring front a better future for all races who experience persecution and create a neutral society for all American citizens.

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