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Essay: Analysing letter written by Martin Luther King from a jail in Birmingham

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This is a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., an American activist who lead the Civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Luther is most popular from his “We the People” speech but that is not all he is known for. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written on April 16, 1963 and was a letter written by Martin Luther King from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. Luther had been sent to prison for getting involved in an organization of a protest help by himself and other supporters. The protests involved the opposition of racial segregation by the city of Birmingham. The letter was directed to eight white clergymen of Alabama who believed that even though social wrongs existed, the fight against racial segregation will not be tolerated Birmingham. The white clergymen also believed that the opposition of racial segregation should be taken to court instead of continuing to protest. In his letter, Luther uses his experiences and knowledge to emphasize the difficulties that the black community had to deal with. Luther’s letter was unique for using appeals like logos, ethos and pathos and for that, he was able to create a connection with him and his audience, which allows him to persuade their actions. Luther also builds trust by mentioning a few leaders who are commonly known, such as Jesus, St. Paul and St. Augustine.

Luther addresses himself in the letter to those who are encouraging views of the white clergy. The letter included that only the use of actions not involving violence could help succeed in true civil rights for everyone in society. Luther stated that, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ and “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (King Jr., 1963). Luther’s use of logos in the writing of his letter are very important and cover a majority of his arguments he makes. Luther makes it clear that has his own reasons and believes others should support him with his beliefs. Luther makes it certain that his arguments will be backed with an explanation and evidence in a logical state of manner. For example, Luther starts off his letter by stating why he thinks the white clergymen are wrong for standing against racial segregation. Luther uses logos to provide the reader with a number of positions and perspectives to look through from the letter. Luther confirms that for every action he supports, he gives reasons as to why he supports those particular actions.

Luther states in his letter that “the only option the black community has in the fight for their rights is the use of direct action” (Oates, 2001). To support his argument, Luther uses an example of the forefathers of the United States who he says did not use good-faith methods in the fight for their desired rights and freedoms. To support why he thought that direct action should be used, Luther brought up an earlier incident in which leaders of the black community discussed how issues affected the black community after the use of direct force and how they were able to use it. Luther states that a number of resolutions were passed during his meetings with leaders, such as the removal of racial signs in towns and stores, including Birmingham. Activists from the black community would end to their protests at that point, however, even though the conformation would be put on hold, the racial and degrading slurs were not removed and would continue to be thrown at towns. For that, Luther encouraged the idea of direct action to advocate the rights of the black community. This is an ideal example where Luther includes the usage of logos in his letter.

Luther quotes an old black woman who states that “her feet are tired but her soul is at rest” (King Jr., 1963). Luthor says that even though the elderly woman may be uneducated, she knows the reason as to why she is suffering, because of the wickedness and discrimination that existed. Involving the elderly woman, Luther indicates that one does not have to be struggling to become noticed by his or her suffering in society. Luther appeals to logos when states that “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great  stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (King Jr., 1963). Luther states that the South is experiencing times of tension because of white moderators not acknowledging the law. He then argues about creating a position in the community to help create and maintain justice.

Besides using only logos in his letter, Luther also persuaded readers by involving ethos. Ethos is seen as frequent as logos in the letter, but is not as important. For instance, it is seen in his first argument, when Luther implies that he aims to clash everyone’s beliefs brought forward together with the arguments made by the white clergyman against racial segregation. In the following paragraph of the letter, Luther confirms his honesty when he opposes the beliefs by the white clergymen. The fact that Luther was the leader of the Christian leadership of the South helps create and make certain of his integrity. Luther appeals to ethos by referring to the statements and beliefs of the white clergymen when presenting his opposed beliefs.

Luther applies ethos by citing his personal background of preachers, indicating that church has played an important role in Luther’s life. He uses words with much enthusiasm such as “traumatized” and “scarred” to give the reader an image of the physical form he was in during his imprisonment. This points out the strong role suggested here by Luther, making it known that the white clergymen were persecuting Jesus when involving the church, instead of being the ones who should be worshipping Him. Towards the conclusion of his letter, Luther also mentions the clergymen of their informal beliefs by stating that he wants to be face-to-face with these men, “…not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

Luther used logos in his letter to bring the different parts together and fit in with the rest of his statements, which makes it one of the strongest appeals in the letter. Ethos is also major as it focuses on ensuring that the reader creates trust and confidence on the writer, being Luther himself. Luther makes use of his experiences and the people he has encountered in his life when writing his letter. For instance, one of the historical leaders Luther refers to was St. Augustine, who said that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He also cites Paul in the Bible when he states that like Paul, he must react to the Macedonian call for help. In addition, Luther also refers to a number of his experiences. He states that “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily” (King Jr., 1963). This makes out Luther as a respectful person who is ready to help society with civil rights. This helps develop the reader’s certainty in Luther’s beliefs.

In addition to logos and ethos, Luther also appeals to pathos in the writing of his letter. Pathos helped with his emotions he included in the letter, which made it so powerful for the reader. The letter has a great emotional sense and mentions a number of issues discussed by Luther. For instance, pathos is seen during the end of the letter, where the police are applauded for “maintaining order and preventing violence” (Hahn, 1996). Luther uses powerful description and details in his letter, which help the reader understand the experience and emotions that ended up happening because of the racial segregation in the black community. The appeal to pathos helped build up a connection between the Luther’s experiences and the reader.

Pathos helps create emotions that causes stimulation in the reader. For instance, the phrase, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” (King Jr., 1963) by Luther involves a lot of emotion for the reader to take in. This example is filled with a lot of emotion because of the actions that the police would do to the black community. Luther describes times when the police would set dogs free on people of the public and there would be times where they are very aggressive to the people. Police dogs were used to attack members of the black community who were engaged in the peaceful protests that the white clergymen were against. Luther states that the treatment of blacks in the prison is not normal and very foolish. Luther states that they are beaten by the guards and denied food whenever they attempt to say the grace or pray together with the white members who were also imprisoned.

Luther makes use of very descriptive language in his letter, which helps the reader engage a connection between common occurrences and experiences. The use of language helps portray the kind of lifestyle that the black community have experienced. In the literal work, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Luther makes a lot of appeal to logos. He also makes a powerful appeal to ethos and pathos but their importance is limited by various amounts of opposing statements in the letter. Logos, which Luther uses to combine and connect the different parts of the letter, created it as the strongest and most important appeal. There are times when Luther combined both logos and pathos in the writing of the letter. The combination of two appeals allowed him to present his experiences in a way where the reader would compare current society and what Luther had gone through.

Luther has used the logos not only to facilitate the reader’s understanding capability, but to make certain that the reader connects to the situation, also making use of pathos. For instance, Martin Luther illustrates the life of a black person stating that, “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers” and “drown your brothers and sisters,” “hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters,” six-year-old daughters unable to go to public amusement parks, and African Americans “humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored” (King Jr., 1963). References made by Luther on Jesus Christ and Saint Paul helps indicate that Christianity was the dominant religion in the society. This helps develop his logic that direct action was necessary during those times. As earlier stated, Luther uses his experiences and knowledge to indicate the disasters of the black community. By using logos, ethos and pathos, he is able to build trust and confidence in the reader, which helps him influence the actions of his readers.

In conclusion, Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” explains his reasons for feeling unimpressed with those who are careless about the suffering of the black community. His letter was directed to those who promote equality but cannot keep promises, the involvement of police and their tendency of violating the laws instead of enforcing them, and the eight white clergymen who do not agree with the beliefs of racial segregation. In Birmingham, the clergymen used various methods of actions not involving violence, including church protests in the city, but received a court order from the clergymen to corrupt all peaceful protests what were active. With the exception that protests are unlawful, the city government fought with their beliefs and began sending supporters of these protests to be imprisoned. Luther was one of the supporters of protesting to be imprisoned. The arguments he has made of his statements that portrayed as logic and emotion allowed him to go against the law and create a letter that was powerful in the reading but never actually taking action. The movement of Luther versus the practices of segregation in the South, and specifically in Birmingham Alabama, regulated part of the future of Civil Rights in the U.S. because provided unfair treatment that were dealt with involving the black community. The refusal to obey civil rights and peaceful protests against racial segregation in the South provided methods of refusal that allowed the start of a slow change in the application of justice and the development of a truly democratic society that provides racial equality.

Throughout his letter, Luther tries to point out the purposes of his letter that are unfair to the black community and equality. I think Luther had a very unique way of presenting his letter towards the readers because of his ability to combine logos, ethos, and pathos to all connect with each other throughout the entire letter. Luther provided examples of emotion of how the black community was misbehaved and uses logic to show why and how he argues about his beliefs. The combinations of his use of logic and emotion resulted in a very powerful letter with emotions and appeals that can connect with the readers using Luther’s arguments.

He appeals to pathos again by his declaration of love. When he states, “How could I otherwise?” This short sentence sounds reminiscent of lovers’ replies to the question “How could you love him/her?” This implied helplessness is a mark of true love. He shows how he suffers because of his love, as well, with his exclamation of:”But oh!” This short sentence emphasizes the sharp pain King feels at the church’s state.

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