“A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr
“A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. was written in the margins of a letter posted by the eight clergymen of Alabama, at this time that sparked his interest and while he inhabited the jail cell for parading around without a permit. This time allowed him the ability to respond wholeheartedly to this cynical oppressing. King’s letter addresses specific points presented in the Clergymen’s and this direct response distinguishes King’s strong points through his powerful writing. Unethical and immoral mentions came to the attention of the Minister through the letter, and he expressed his differing views and defended his ideals and actions through Aristotle’s three rhetorical devices, ethos, logos, and pathos. Martin Luther King’s main claim is to promote the urgent need for and biblical soundness of nonviolent protest. King wrote this letter to defend the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. All people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws. King argues that all men must, no matter their lot in life, take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts.
Claims of Fact – One example of his appeal to logos is when he points out that “there have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other state. (801). Thomas Aquinas (Catholic Saint) “To put in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any laws that degrades human personality is unjust”. Martin Buber (Jewish Philosopher) “To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things” The Bible: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “ “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” First and foremost, King establishes his credibility to spark off his strong defense. Introducing himself as “The President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. … [with] eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail” 2).
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This credential not only puts King into a position of power but also proves that he has seen enough of the south and the problems within it to create a strong argument against his opposition. Another point that establishes this is on page seven of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” where King states that he’s traveled through the “length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings”. This quote defends his credibility further because not only did King travel once through these states but multiple times in different seasons, and even deeper- in different trials that may have been presented. Moreover, throughout the letter, King references the Bible, presidents, and writers to establish not only his educated mind, but also his passion for righteousness and his stance as a minister. The flawless flow of his passionate response to the Clergymen also presents support for his intellect and knowledge due to keeping a reasonable head and developed grammar while inhabiting a jail cell.
Claims of Definition – I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. (800). So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here. (Logos) (800).
Claims of Cause – You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” (802). 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. (Logos) (802). 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?” (802). We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. 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.” (Pathos) (802).
Claims of Value – “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth…” (800). King appeals to his own ethos and to his opponent’s ethos as well throughout his argument. In the first paragraph, King appeals to his own ethos by quoting his opponents and by honoring his opponents (Ethos).
Claims of Policy – King argues that some laws are just, while the discriminatory ones that devalue African Americans are not. The laws in question are society’s policies. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools (803). One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the last to advocate (803) disobeying just laws. (Logos). In “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” King directs his message to two distinct audiences. The intended audience is King’s fellow clergy because he wrote specifically to them. However, King’s unintended audience is the apathetic people of the United States. Throughout the passage, after King addresses his credentials and furthers I through his knowledgeable and strong rebuttals of logic, his argument plays further into the conscious of his audience through well put references and emotional instances. One powerful example of King’s pull on the reader’s consciousness in his letter is on page three when he refutes the argument of the Clergymen saying that Colored people should just “wait”. While many words truly stand out, King’s true effect was mastered by the appeal to the parents in the group, “When you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why white people treat colored people so mean”” (803). Then again, “humiliation day in and day out by nagging signs”(803) and even further, when “you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”” (804).
Another element that helps support King’s point in his letter is the fervent repetition of his blatant disappointment in more than simply the clergymen, but their Christian faith and the churches in service within Alabama during this time. King repeats how disappointed he was in the “common whites” also and their bystander reactions to racial issues. The fact that this man, a minister, “beneath” the said extremist white clergymen, and inhabiting a jail cell during that time, who was disappointed in people showed a true depth which hit the audience profoundly. By alluding to such a powerful figure, Jesus, King is connecting all of the nation with each other because most people worship Jesus. He talks about him to make them listen when they hear his name. This method is extremely effective because it gets the audience’s attention and makes them look into Kings suggestions.
This letter was very successful in persuading this intended audience because several weeks after it had been published, the wheels on the Civil Rights Movement really started to turn. This letter was written April 16, 1963 and just one short year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended all state and local laws requiring segregation. Clearly this was effective because we ended all segregation one year after this letter had been published and we are still integrated today. This letter really sparked the Civil Rights Movement and really helped people understand the importance to act because time is of the essence and this problem was never going to solve itself by increasing time.
- King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Practical Argument: A Text and Anthology, 2nd ed., edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2014, pp. 799-812.