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Martin Luther King Jr. was a well known clergyman, turned affluent civil rights activists. He was a man that is recognized all over as a leader for influencing the desegregation of the southern United States. His famous “Letter from Birmingham” offered a detailed response to the white moderate of his time, rebutting their claims that the direct actions of King’s cause, were “untimely” and “unwise”. King made use of ethos, pathos, and logos in his letter; three powerful rhetorical devices that make various appeals to the target audience.
King was in Birmingham Jail when he composed this response. His perspective was that of a disappointed, black man in America, who had been subjected to all sorts of racial discrimination and segregation through the span of his life. Nevertheless, he was also a reverend, who was very patient, and well versed in the philosophy and execution of civil disobedience. This, and his use of appeals made his letter all the more credible. King’s use of rhetorical appeal in the letter played an enormous role in the shift from a segregated America, to the kind of America that King dreamt it would become..
How it works
King started off by addressing the reason why he was in jail. He was leading a peaceful protest that lead to his arrest for not having a permit. King organized the letter by stating each critique from the white moderate and then explaining why direct action was justified. When the clergy said that King’s actions were untimely, he describes the urgency of the situation. He explained how black Americans have waited over 300 years to acquire basic constitutional rights. His idea was that nobody ever got anywhere by waiting for change to come to them.
King cited several examples of how blacks have had to endure pain for much too long. He said that he has watched his brothers and sisters be referred to as niggers and boys, be punched and kicked, lynched, burned, drowned, cursed, and brutalized. This went to his point of how patience was no longer possible and that was the reason why his actions may have been misconstrued as untimely.
The clergy also asserted that King and his constituents were extreme. King expressed a degree of disappointment at being considered an extremist when his actions were nonviolent. He went on to say that extremists in history have had a profound impact on many societies across the world. King cites Amos, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and even Thomas Jefferson as examples of people who also had what were considered extremist views and practices. All of these men went down in history as extraordinary individuals. This eventually gave King a sense of appreciation and satisfaction during his letter because he was regarded as an extremist, just as the influential men that came before him.
King mentions several disappointments over the course of his letter. One of his biggest issues was that the leadership of the church claimed to be in his corner, yet shrugged their shoulders at every turn of the cause and would refuse to stand with him when things did not seem to be going smoothly. He apologizes for not being able to hold his silence, and be patient in his fight. In closing, he expresses his hope for a desegregated future of brotherhood and love. On the surface level, King is telling a thorough story, but at a deeper glance his argument contains advanced diction and rhetoric that made his letter credible, logical, and emotional.
King makes use of ethos in his writing, which is an appeal to ethics; this establishes a certain level of credibility for him. King does this by opening his letter with his accomplishments such as being the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which had 85 affiliate organizations all over the south. One of these partnerships includes the esteemed Christian Movement for Human Rights. He says directly that he is not an outsider looking in. He is a reverend from the south and it is his business to advocate against segregation. Just expressing his background as a minister goes towards the development of ethos.
This tool is used so that the words coming from his letter do not go over the clergy’s heads. King uses this appeal so that the audience understands that he knows what he is talking about. King’s message would not be well received if he did not have his background. If he did not have his knowledge of the philosophies and doctrines of nonviolence, civil disobedience and discourse, his message would not be well received. He would simply be regarded as an unreliable activist. However, establishing this credibility allows King to reach his target audience.
Ethos is a useful technique in developing trustworthiness in a writer, but King uses logos as well. Logos is the appeal that refers to logic and facts. King utilizes several facts and statistics throughout his letter. He talked about how black people have waited over 340 years to gain the same rights as white Americans. Logically, the clergy could not refute the fact that there had been little to no change for the black community (members of their own community). This aspect of King’s argument actually forced them to evaluate the facts and state of the issue.
Logos is all about making sense. Another example of this appeal is when King is arguing the paradoxical nature of breaking laws. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools was disobeyed. The clergy expresses unease at King’s “willingness to break laws” with his nonviolent protests. King plays to the fact that it does not make sense to tell him to obey the law when the law was broken for an unjust cause; a cause in which he is fighting against. King uses logos as a means to pick apart the flaws of the clergy’s “concerns” and show them just how warranted his actions are.
Perhaps the most effective rhetorical device that King uses is pathos. This is an appeal to the emotions of the reader. King’s target audience was the white moderate but at the same time, his letter was renowned nationwide. Therefore, tugging at the heartstrings was an extremely powerful way to send a message. The best example of this appeal is when King explains the urgency behind his cause. “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” (P. 429) This quote comes from King expressing just how serious and emotional this cause is for him and members of the black community.
When there are women and children involved, being brutalized seems a lot more brutal. King uses this truth to appeal to the readers’ emotions. He recognized that this was an effective way to bring further into the light the atrocities of racism and segregation. Quick action is typically a product of this appeal, which makes it the perfect secret weapon for King’s letter.
King’s most memorable, most effective arguments were those that relied on taking a deep look at inner human emotion. The pathos appeal was prevalent in King’s letter from beginning to end. Even in closing, King says that his letter would have been much easier to compose, had he not been thrown in jail for peacefully protesting for the rights of people who he considers to be family. His hope was that people would feel not just one emotion, but a plethora of emotions: sadness, anger, remorse, love, regret, empathy, etc.
King used many rhetorical devices in his writing, from repetition, allusion and imagery, all the way to ethos, logos, and pathos. This piece incorporated a multitude of different techniques, which King synthesized into an extremely advanced message for the white moderate. King’s culmination of ethos, pathos, and logos plays a large part in why his “Letter from Birmingham” was so effective and so well received by his society, and continues to be a piece that future societies are able to learn from.
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