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Rhetorical Strategies in Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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In 1960s Alabama there was a lot of civil unrest, especially in a city called Birmingham. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading protests and eventually got arrested. This led to the letter called A Call For Unity, which is a statement by Alabama clergymen addressing the protests led by Dr. King. In this statement the clergymen wanted all the protests to end even though they were peaceful, saying that the protests at no point would solve anything and that all this should be solved in court. The clergymen even went as far to say that law enforcement handled them in a “calm manner” and that they should be allowed to keep protecting the city. They wanted the black and white community to work together in solving the issues through the courts. This letter from the clergymen led to a response from Dr. King that would be recorded forever in history. Dr. King wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail in response to the clergymen, and to rile up the people. In this letter, Dr. King successfully claimed that he will not stop revolting until all black people have equal rights by effectively appealing to logos, pathos, and ethos.

Throughout history for things both perceived as good or bad, the same three persuasion techniques have always been used. Both Dr. King and his would-be silencers appealed to logos, pathos, and ethos in order to try and persuade their audience. In A Call For Unity the clergymen appealed to the logical side of the audience in trying to make them go the non-agitative route in achieving equality for the races by the courts. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail even though Dr. King used appealed a lot to logos, he also appealed to pathos mostly to convince the audience towards following his movement for equality and passionately turned even the moderates over to his cause. This really shows how impacting using the three persuasive devices can be in anything whether it be calming down a movement or urging for an uprising.

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A Call For Unity is a document where less radical clergymen are urging Dr. King to use more “lawful” strategies in seeking change, such as through the courts and not through protests. Their appeal to logos is even stated flat out in the quote “an appeal for law and order and common sense”, showing that they are trying to pacify the audience through logical reasoning. They also try to gain credibility by starting the letter introducing themselves as the clergymen, which appeals to ethos and tries to gain the trust of the audience through their position. The approach of the eight clergymen is mostly form a logical standpoint where they state facts and issues calling for “negotiation of racial issues”. By reading the letter it can be inferred that the purpose of this document is to end the so-called civil unrest being caused by Dr. King and his movement. The audience of this document are the followers of King and the body of the church. As shown by the effects of Dr. King’s letter, the clergymen had no success in their appeal.

Martin Luther King, Jr. even degrades them a bit in appealing to logos like when he said that if he responded to “all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other”. This quote shows how much he dislikes their criticism by emphasizing how he doesn’t address every concern, or else he would accomplish little. This shows how even in the sneakiest and most logical way Dr. King can show his discontent for the criticisms displayed by the clergymen. Dr. King always wanted to stand for equality in all states and he stated that he logically couldn’t “sit idly by in Atlanta”, because he stated that his purpose was to achieve equality for all the blacks no matter where in the nation. This went to him organizing more protests and doing anything to address the injustices in Birmingham. Dr. King even laid out his four steps in a nonviolent campaign in a very logical manner that showed the audience why he was right to address injustices and his process as mentioned in the letter. This all shows that besides pathos Dr. King mostly used logos as well to convince the people that he is the voice of reason and is correct in the letter.

Dr. King’s letter is one of history’s best organized documents that appeals to every persuasive device. The letter starts with an emotional appeal to pathos by Dr. King saying, “while confined here in the Birmingham city jail” which expands on the circumstances which he was facing for defending his beliefs. Pathos was his second most used rhetorical device in the letter and, one which he truly used to appeal to the people. It can even be said that Dr. King not only in the letter but in most of his speeches relied on pathos, something the clergymen didn’t use too much in their letter. Martin Luther King, Jr. goes on to end the letter in the most respectful and inspiring manner using a strong appeal to pathos saying, “one day the south will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best.” This quote truly shows his emotional appeal to the people and how he wanted true equal rights for blacks no matter if even the youth had to rebel.

Dr. King held the clergymen as his equals, and felt no shame is expressing it publicly and proving his credibility. One such appeal to ethos is when he portrayed the others as his “fellow clergymen”, showing that they are not above or below him being his equal colleagues. Dr. King used credibility not only to defend himself but, also to defend his people and showing that all are equal. Dr. King proved that he is a experienced leader and religious scholar when he said, “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. He said this to show the people that he isn’t just a problematic protester, but a religious man who has led people throughout his life and is on a holy mission to gain equality for his people truly showing ethos. Throughout the whole letter he doesn’t use ethos as much as the other two rhetorical devices but, he uses it just enough that overall he is justified and a credible person who can be followed with an effective message.

In conclusion, to deliver a message in the most effective way it is necessary to use the three persuasive devices. A Call For Unity uses these devices for pure logical persuasion; Letter from a Birmingham Jail uses these devices in an emotional response stating why these acts are necessary and urging a call to action to resolve the injustices. It can be seen that even though Dr. King and the clergymen have different ways to reach their goal, they use the same exact devices to convince the audience. Dr. King’s response to the clergymen turned out to be a historical event that set the precedent for major political activists to use the three devices, and this shows how important logos, pathos, and ethos are in our society.

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