Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr: Rhetorical Analysis and Plot

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In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor and civil rights leader, was an inmate confined in a Birmingham Alabama city cell after being part of the Birmingham campaign. The campaign was created to peacefully protest against segregation laws in Birmingham. During this time Dr. King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a counterargument in response to a statement appearing in the Birmingham News by a group of white clergymen who were against the protest calling it “unwise and untimely.” In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King uses rhetorical appeals to defend his central claim that segregation laws are unjust and is seeking support to end it. Throughout the letter, Dr. King uses the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos, avoiding logical fallacies to address the white clergymen as well as to grasp the attention of a general audience.

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In his letter, Dr. King focuses on the strategy of addressing one counterargument to another to address the group of white clergymen false claims. One of the counterargument Dr. King states in his letter to clergymen, “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” (King). Dr. King is arguing that without non-violent direct- action people won’t be pressured to change the community for the better and everyone is treated with respect regardless of the color of their skin. Another counterargument Dr. King addresses, “One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act.” Dr. King response to the question raised, “For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” it rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never”. We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” Throughout his letter, Dr. King did not leave a counterargument unaddressed and by using this strategy he effectively proven the statements made by the group of clergymen were false. Then he used ethos, pathos, and logos which strength his credibility and helped persuade his audience to support the movement.

From the very beginning of his letter, Dr. King establishes his ethos by saying “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” His connecting with his audience as an equal in status and reassuring his role of a religious leader. Reassuring his critics of his religious role is great example of him building his ethos, religious leaders tend to be looked upon as trustworthy, credible, and overall goodwill human beings. He goes on to acknowledge the sincerity of the clergymen concerns stating, “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms” . This ethos approach is Dr. King’s certified way of building trust and guaranteeing the attention of the clergymen as well as the general audience who may have doubted his true intentions.

Another example of ethos used is when Dr. King listed all the organization his involved with, such as serving as the “president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.” By providing this information to his critics Dr. King assured them that his not a troublemaker and he certainly is not an “outsider” as they have described him for protesting in Birmingham. In addition to the clergymen considering him as an outsider and a trouble maker, he was also labeled as an extremist. He goes on to quote multiple historical figures who were once labeled as “extremist”: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice… Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel…Was not Martin Luther an extremist… “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” (King). Dr. King strengths his ethos by mentioning these multiple historical and religious figures in his letter to get the message across that being an “extremist” is not evil but powerful and can actually bring positive changes which he intended to bring. Throughout the letter, he effectively used all of these examples to build his ethos to establish his character.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King effectively uses pathos to appeal to the emotions and imagination of his general audience is evident throughout the letter. There are two major moments of pathos used in his letter to grasp the audience attention and allow them to sympathize with what black citizens have been through in America. Dr. King utilized vivid imagery that greatly appeals to pathos, first he visually highlights hardships blacks in general endure and makes his audience picture these situations happening to their family. Dr. King writes, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” His second example made the letter very emotional, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”(King). Dr. King uses this example to trigger the emotions of a parent or an audience who loves children to illustrate segregation is affecting young children and has robbed them of their innocence. His use of emotion appeal throughout the paragraph was very effective because this kind of examples put the audience in people of color shoes which leads to a sense of guilt and empathy in their hearts.

Likewise, Dr. King gives a vivid glimpse of the treatment black citizen endured from the criminal justice system which was highly praised by some for keeping order. Dr. King argues, “I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.” Another great example of triggering the audience on an emotional level to encourage empathy, by placing the audience in black citizens situation and picturing themselves being attacked by the policemen in which one might be seriously hurt. Dr. King successfully made his audience visually imagine themselves in the situation with his use of pathos, which made his letter much more powerful and persuasive.

Lastly, in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” rhetorical analysis Dr. King also uses logos to further his argument and justify his cause. One-way Dr. King appeals to logic is when he describes the difference between “just law” and “unjust law” to support his argument. Dr. King states, “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? 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. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: 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.” The “unjust laws” denied the non-white population access to the same basic rights granted by the constitution and by God himself. Logos is shown here by illustrating African Americans had no rights and were segregated, but laws existed to benefit the whites. Then Dr. King goes on to give an example in which laws were unfair and unjust such as the Holocaust.

He gives an example in history of how law is not always ethically correct. Dr. King writes, “We can never forget that everything 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. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.” Here, Dr. King refers to Adolf Hitler’s actions to be considered “legal” and anyone who tried to save the Jews from being tortured was considered “illegal” in Germany. A law is law, however that doesn’t mean it is right. His example of an unjust law of Hitler’s Germany and what his reaction would’ve been (to aid his “Jewish brothers”) implies to his audience that he would’ve broken Nazi laws thus challenging his audience to consider the same with segregation laws.

In conclusion, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is known as one of the best written argumentative documents to come from the Civil Rights Movement. His success was due to successfully crafting his counterargument to directly addressing his audience. He begins his letter with building his ethos to show his credibility to his audience. Then he goes on to trigger the emotions of the audience by using pathos. Also, Dr. King uses logos to justify his cause. By using theses rhetorical devices ethos, pathos, and logos, it made his letter more credible, logical, emotional, and persuasive. Without a doubt, Dr. King was able to effectively convey his letter to the clergymen and the general audience and gain support needed to support nonviolent direct actions and the Civil Rights Movement. His urgent help to the people in Birmingham was a help to the people around the world. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”           

Works cited

  1. King, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Atlantic Monthly, 212(2), 78-88.
  2. Carson, C. (2015). The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Grand Central Publishing.
  3. Thompson, M. (2017). Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: A Case Study in Rhetoric. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 10(4), 130-147.
  4. O’Brien, D. J. (2014). The Wages of Nonviolence: Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the Limits of Liberalism. U of Georgia P.
  5. Baldwin, L. H. (2018). The American Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Progress. Rowman & Littlefield.
  6. Garrow, D. J. (1986). Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. HarperCollins.
  7. Abernathy, R. D. (1989). And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. HarperCollins.
  8. Harding, V. (1997). Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. Orbis Books.
  9. West, C. (2001). The Radical King. Beacon Press.
  10. Blassingame, J. W. (1972). The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Oxford University Press.

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