Martin Luther King Jr., a prominent clergyman who became a wealthy civil rights activist, was well-known. His influence on the desegregation in the south was well-known. His “Letter From Birmingham” was a detailed response to white moderates of his day, refuting their claim that King’s direct actions were “untimely” or “unwise”. King used logos, pathos and ethos in his letter. These three powerful rhetorical tools make appeals to different audiences.
King was at Birmingham Jail when this response was written. King’s perspective was that of a black man who had suffered from racial discrimination throughout his life. He was also a reverend who was patient and was well-versed in civil disobedience. His use of appeals and this made his letter even more credible. King’s use rhetorical appeals in his letter played a significant role in America becoming the America King envisioned.
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King began by explaining why he was locked up. King was participating in peaceful protests that led to his arrest because he did not have a permit. King organized the letter by listing each criticism from the white moderate, and then explaining why he felt that direct action was necessary. He explained the urgency of the situation when the clergy claimed King’s actions were not timely. He described how black Americans waited for basic constitutional rights to be granted over 300 years. He believed that no one ever achieved anything by waiting for change.
King gave several examples of blacks who have suffered too much pain. King said that he witnessed his siblings, who were called niggers or boys, being punched and kicked and lynched, burnt, drowned and cursed and brutalized. He said that patience was not possible anymore, and that this was why his actions might have been misinterpreted as untimely.
The clergy also claimed that King and his constituencies were extremists. King expressed disappointment at being called an extremist, even though his actions were peaceful. King went on to state that many societies have been impacted by extremists throughout history. King mentions Amos Christ, Martin Luther and John Bunyan as examples of extremist views and practices. These men were all remembered as exceptional individuals in history. King felt a sense of satisfaction and appreciation for his letter. He was seen as an extremist just like the influential men before him.
King lists several disappointments throughout his letter. King was disappointed that his church leadership claimed they were in his side, but would shrug their shoulders and refuse to support him when things weren’t going well. He apologizes for his inability to keep his mouth shut and he is trying to be patient. He concludes by expressing his hope for a future of brotherhood, love and desegregation. Although King’s story is well-written, his argument has advanced rhetoric and diction that makes it credible, logical and emotionally charged.
King uses ethos in his writing. This is an appeal to ethics. It establishes King’s credibility. King opens his letter by highlighting his achievements, such as his presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which had 85 affiliated organizations across the south. The Christian Movement for Human Rights is one of these partnerships. Straightly, he says that he isn’t an outsider looking in. He is a southerly reverend and it is his business, to fight against segregation. His experience as a minister is a starting point for the development of an ethos.
This tool is used to ensure that his words do not get lost in translation. King appeals to the audience so they understand what he’s talking about. King’s message wouldn’t be received well if he didn’t have the right background. His message wouldn’t be received well if he didn’t have his background in the philosophy and doctrines civil disobedience, nonviolence, and discourse. King would be seen as an unreliable activist. This credibility allows King to reach his intended audience.
Ethos is a helpful technique for building trustworthiness in writers, but King also uses logos. Logos refers to logic, facts and appeal. King uses many statistics and facts throughout his letter. King spoke about the fact that black Americans have waited for over 340 years to be granted equal rights as white Americans. Logically, the clergy couldn’t refute that little or no change had occurred for the black community (members within their own communities). This aspect of King’s argument forced them to examine the facts and the state of the matter.
Logos is about making sense. King argues the paradoxical nature and consequences of breaking laws. 1954 Supreme Court ruling which outlawed segregation at public schools was ignored. King’s “willingness” to violate laws through his peaceful protests is a source of concern for the clergy. King plays on the fact that it doesn’t make sense to tell him to follow the law when it was broken for an unjust reason; which King is fighting against. King uses logos to expose the flaws in the clergy’s “concerns”, and show them how justified his actions are.
Pathos is King’s most powerful rhetorical tool. This appeals to the emotions of the reader. King’s intended audience was white moderates, but his letter was also well-known nationwide. It was a powerful way to convey a message. King’s explanation of the urgency behind his cause is the best example. King says that he and his fellow members of the black community are deeply affected by this issue.
Being brutalized becomes more severe when there are children and women involved. King appeals to the emotions of his readers by using this truth. This was a powerful way to expose the atrocities of segregation and racism. This appeal is a great secret weapon to King’s letter because it allows for quick action.
King’s most memorable and most powerful arguments relied on a deep examination of inner human emotion. From beginning to end, King’s letter was full of pathos appeal. King claims that his letter would be much simpler to write if he hadn’t been sent to jail for peacefully protesting the rights of those he considers family. King hoped that people would not feel one emotion but many: anger, sadness, remorse and love, regret, empathy and so on.
King employed many rhetorical tools in his writing. These included repetition, allusion, imagery, logos and pathos. King combined a variety of techniques to create a highly advanced message for white moderates. King’s combination of logos, pathos and ethos is a major reason why his “Letter From Birmingham” was so successful and well received by his society. It will continue to be an example that future societies can learn from.
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