The Civil Rights Movement did not suddenly appear out of nowhere in the twentieth century. The efforts to improve the quality of life for African Americans are as old as the United States. However, it was until the year of the 1960s, a nonviolent approach by Martin Luther King, Jr. had awakened the conscience of Americans both black and white about a world where” All men are equal” and be treated fairly. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter, written to the Clergymen from Birmingham Prison, he made use of ethos, pathos, and logos, which are directed towards his reputation and wisdom, to have the attention as well as innate human rights, engendering guilt in his audience.
This letter was written as the result of a series of peaceful demonstrations aimed at ending segregation at Birmingham. Martin Luther King Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have met obstacles where “police reacted violently with attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses” which caused hundreds of protesters, including King, were jailed. At first, King was criticized for taking on Birmingham; eight white clergymen published a letter calling his actions ‘unwise and untimely.’ But he responded with his letter citing philosophers, religious scholars, and biblical figures to justify his actions.
In “The Letter from Birmingham Jail”, the rhetorical appeal of ethos are present from the first paragraph. By starting the letter with “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” he is putting himself on the same “level” as the clergymen, sending the message that he is no less than them and they are no better than him. He then goes on with establishing his credibility “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. Frequently, we share staff, educational, and financial resources with our affiliates.” The purpose of the introduction is to establish his credibility as a member of the United States of America as well as one of the religious leaders. Such connections are important because they show his audience that Dr.King share the same beliefs with them as well as having a similar authority as they do, therefore he has the right to exercise his faith.
MLK compares his mission to spread his message to Paul’s religious expeditions implying that he is also God’s chosen people to bring liberation and freedom to people, “Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid!”. By noting that he has been sent by Jesus, Dr.King shows his authority in the religious field, that he has the support of God no matter how people may be against him. Just as Jesus sent his disciples all over the world to take the gospel, Martin Luther makes it clear that he came to Birmingham due to the injustice that was prevailing. Here, Dr.King is making his audience feel guilty about not living up to both their religious and moral obligations to the movements.
Aside from appealing to the religious reader, Dr.King continue to assert his use of Authority on non-religious readers by paraphrasing famous philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Burber “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” His use of logos here encouraged people to follow the laws that benefit him while breaking laws that do not. By taking for granted that his audience accepts the validity of Christian morality, he insists that one should apply this sense of morality towards the world’s complications. And yet even within this logical argument is an implicit use of pathos, as he implicitly asks the question ‘would you want to support a law that “distorts the soul?”‘ Dr. King’s argument urged his audience to question their view of the Civil Rights Movement and feel ashamed of their failure to support the movement.
Parallelism was used when Dr.King is addressing his disappointment with the white moderates ” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” The frustration that King speaks of here is that although these sympathizers sided with King and blacks about their right to equality, they felt that this equality was to be granted only when it was convenient for the white man. Their sympathy/understanding of King and the blacks’ struggle was thus shallow, and as such, more frustrating to bear than the outright resistance shown by intransigent whites who blatantly rejected any thought of racial equality for the black man.
Martin Luther King then proceeds to justify his cause for protest and establish reasons for the advancement of civil rights by continuously raising doubts about the meaning of a “just law” and pointing out specific examples in which laws were unfair and unjust. King says, “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. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” Here he establishes a powerful example of an unjust law, and how he would have reacted to it. This tosses the ball back into the clergymen’s court – implying that they should think about what they would have done. It is assumed that as good Christians, they would have given aid to any person in need. He draws a correlation to the atrocities committed against the Jews to the atrocities committed against African Americans in America – though, on a much smaller scale, the situations can be considered similar, with unjust laws bringing about violence and deaths. King forces the clergymen to think about the morally correct course of action.
Finally, the rhetoric engenders shame in the inability of churches to live up to the standards of Christianity. King describes his disappointment in the church, “The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century”. Here, King conveys a sense of panic and urgency to the audience by suggesting the future of Church is at risk if they don’t change their behavior. The phrase “judgment of God” is associated with fear of the power of God, about biblical stories involving consequences of God’s disapproval, causing the audience to feel fearful and to feel a need to change to avoid God’s wrath. Also, by referring to the Church as “an irrelevant social club,” King disrespects the Church to convey his point and demonstrate the future of the Church if people are not to take action. Calling the Church “an irrelevant social club” can anger the clergymen and other readers, forcing the clergymen to realize that if they are irritated by a rude reference now, then they must take action to prevent such disrespect.
The author of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King, was an extremely prominent and the most influential civil-rights leader during the era. He was able to effectively show the American people the injustice the black community faced and why nonviolent protests have a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement. Without his cleverness in using rhetorical devices, the Civil Right Movements wouldn’t be as successful as it ended up to be.
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