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Essay: Letter from Birmingham Jail – Martin Luther King

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Letter from Birmingham Jail

Throughout Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s paper he effectively demonstrates use of ethos, logos, and pathos to show his theme of determination. King believed there was a better world where Americans no longer worried about the color of their skin. He was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail for a peaceful protest by people who hated him. Even Though he was arrested under false charges King still treated the people with sympathy and respect. He responded to the clergyman by stating, “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk […] I would have no time for constructive work.”(King, 1). That line alone demonstrated his determination to reach towards his goal of ridding Birmingham of its segregation in spite of what his opposers say. King fought so lividly towards his goal because he had experienced the mistreatment and segregation first hand and did not want the next generation to grow up like he had to. In this letter, Dr. King illustrated how determined he was to fight for a major adjustment in the treatment of the African American community by using the rhetorical appeals, ethos, logos, and pathos.

The life Martin Luther King, Jr. described what the African American community went

through in the mid-1900s. It stood as a solid example of unfair treatment and division in

America. Those who supported segregation were often violent in their methods. Despite the anger most of the black community carried against these whites, the Civil Rights movements remained nonviolent (King 4). King illustrated this nonviolent approach in his letter from jail. He expressed ethos, which is defined as, a representation of the authors credibility within his character. His first example of utilizing ethos took place in the second paragraph. King informed his audience of his lack of a legitimate reason for being in jail. He claimed he stood as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and he was not a criminal (King 1). This respectable man did not deserve imprisonment. King humbled himself when he stated his presidential status as he says, “I have the honor of serving […]” (1). This quote showed King’s humility. He did not hold himself higher than others, and he abided in a position that he had earned through hard work. King established himself as a reliable source through his leadership position. He continued to prove the trustworthiness character throughout the rest of his letter.

King begins his letter ethos. He shows his trustworthiness on the topic with his PhD level of education and holding the presidential spot in his class, of mostly white students, at Boston University (The New York Times 1). Unfortunately, his accomplishments did not mean much to the people who bullied their way through life treating African Americans like they were nothing. However he did not stop there, King went on to quote the Bible and compare his work to it, saying, “Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond their hometowns […] I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.”(King 1).  He said this because he knew the men who wrote the article were clergymen, men of God, so he quickly attempted to gain credibility by comparing his work to that of Biblical figures. King showed his determination to get his point across by not stopping there, but going on to demonstrate mastery of the other two rhetorical appeals as well.

King’s letter then began to focus more on the logical appeals rather than ethical ones. King’s beliefs were Christian based so he put the wrongs and injustices committed against the saints morals. Determined to show the racially deranged whites the true error of their mistreatment of the African American community King quotes Saint Augustine, “Augustine questions, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ and he concludes, ‘An unjust law is no law at all,” (King 3). The reason King quote Augustine is because even though most the white community represented it poorly, they were still extremely religious and believe in God and his saints. After that quote King proved that some of the written laws meant to segregate based off of skin color were unjust. By using a quote from a man the community respected and then turning it around on them King effectively made them rethink the logic behind their laws and way of life that they had held onto for so long.

King did not stop there with his use of Logos. One of his final uses of the logical appeal is when he pointed out the police departments flaws and racial crimes. He states that the police had allowed vicious dogs to bite innocent and unarmed African Americans. The police force used unfair and inhumane treatment when it came to the African community. They would physically and verbally abuse the women, they often beat the men, and refused to give food to some because they would sing grace together. King refused to sit on the sidelines and watch the atrocities be put upon innocent men and women, and he refused to trust that the police force existed as a safe and protective group of the people (King 5). The facts and examples that King provided surrounding the police forces actions were more than enough logos for many people, although, he was determined to continue his famous letter.

To prove his points even further king introduced the final appeal, pathos, into his letter. King the effectively set up a pathos scenario, saying “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. […] Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly […] Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”(King 2). Those few lines are a great example of pathos because Dr. King effectively pointed out that they are all in the situation together, whether they like it or not, and what the few do affects the many. The unjust treatment the African American people took on reached the point where the people who could make a change simply ignored the situation. King declared the white people preferred to follow through with a form of peace which solved nothing, instead of speaking out against the injustices of the colored people of America (3). These “white moderates”, which King dubbed the blind white community, refused to help their fellow Americans after they obviously suffered through unjust treatment (King 3). Accusations towards these standby men and women caused a stir in them, because most people have a natural human instinct of becoming speechless when accused of something true. He then continued his pathos argument using the situation where a child asked his father why white people are so mean to the African Americans (King 2). He used the example of a child to draw out the emotions of sadness and sympathy. The emotional appeals to his audience also brought controversy. The use of sympathy and emotion throughout the letter brought out animosity in many white supremacists’ actions.

Martin Luther King, Jr. determination to write “Letter from Birmingham Jail” brought attention to the horrific treatment aimed at the African American people. By applying the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos into his letter, the text opened the eyes of his audience by presenting true facts about the brutality throughout the country. The letter exploited multiple attributes of the supremacists. King also revealed the racists of America as savage animals who would prey on the weak and defenseless. This letter attracted massive amounts  attention to America’s issues and can be trusted to exist as an amazing piece of text, w
ritten by King, which fought for the rights all men and women deserve. King illustrated how determined he was to fight for a major adjustment in the treatment of the negro community by using the rhetorical appeals, ethos, logos, and pathos to write this letter which was extremely useful in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.

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