Progressing the Civil Rights Movement with Aristotle’s Artistic Appeals

Right amidst the heat of the Civil Rights movement in a small cell block within the solid confines of Birmingham city jail, a passionate African American activist completed a published statement in response to eight white clergymen who called out the whole band of the African American community to be patient to earn their rights in the US. Unbeknownst to King, this revolutionary piece of literature advocating for nonviolent resistance to racism for African Americans in America would reshape the entire Civil Rights Movement and the words that it bore would still touch the hearts of readers more than 5 decades later. Martin Luther King, who had a special way with words, utilized Aristotle’s 3 basic artistic appeals in the composition of the Letter From Birmingham Jail to leave a lasting impact on readers.

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King cleverly intertwined Logos, Ethos, and Pathos into the letter to override the readers’ preconditioned bias with empathy and leave people feeling heavily impacted and inspired. In the face of fallacy, King uses logos in his letter to lay base level groundwork of facts to reach all readers with no regards to each individual person’s political standpoint. No matter your race, gender, age, or socioeconomic background, it’s particularly difficult to argue with points drawn from logic.

In Article 6, Pathos is most prominent when King brings up statistics like Birmingham’s record of brutality, the unjust treatment of black men and women in the bustling metropolis, as well as the unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches. He proceeds this by stating clearly “These are the hard, brutal facts of the case” (3). Another main point in this letter is King’s distinction between just and unjust laws. In Article 17 and 18, King clarifies the difference between just and unjust laws in the context of the situation at hand with the clergyman against the Civil Rights Movement. He states in Article 17, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical…that it is willing to follow itself “ (7). Similarly in Article 18, he says “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that…enacting or devising the law” (7). This is a very helpful way for King to gain the understanding of his standpoint from readers because they can see his ideas put in direct parallel with the real circumstances that were occuring. King’s constant supply of logos in his letter helped to build his ethos, or his credibility, because it enables him to show his varying degrees of audience members that he knows the facts of injustice being committed in his community and that he is fit to represent all of the suffering his people have endured.

Right off the bat in Article 2, King shares that he is serving as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This establishes his religious affiliation as well as leadership and shows competency when speaking on these various kinds of issues. This is crucial especially when the opposing side is clergymen because it eliminates religion as being a disconnect between the two ends of the letter and therefore makes it so religion isn’t a factor in people choosing which side to support. King however does not only use ethos to build up his own achievements, he also quotes a lot of famous people in literature and in scripture to show a level of sophistication and education that may not be apparent to an outsider who witnesses a street protest. From a jail cell that provides him no access to supplementary materials, King is still able to perfectly quote Lincoln, Jefferson, Socrates, Apostles, even not at all well known Jewish philosophers and African American activists. Anybody reading this letter without context most likely wouldn’t guess that he pulled all of the information out of his brain. This speaks to his unarguable credibility to speak with delicate precision on these topics as the face of the African American community. Finally, the portion of the letter that leaves a long lasting impression in the reader’s hearts is pathos or the emotional appeal.

One of the most touching Articles in the letter is undoubtedly Article 14. In this article, a very vivid picture of a small child being turned away from an amusement park because of her skin color is drawn in reader’s minds to elicit an emotional response. In the Article, a 5-year old boy also asks his father “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (6). Using a small child’s plea, touches readers because it shows a direct response to racism being actively enabled in communities by grown adults. When it affects small children who seem to be spilling over with helplessness, the reader’s maternal or paternal instincts kick in to feel sorry for the child. King also uses incredible syntax to elicit the perfect emotional response from readers. In Article 26, King states “Now is the time to lift our national…human dignity.” The use of quicksand in contrast with solid rock is a very clear indication of smart writing and those kinds of pieces can leave an impact on readers for a long time afterwards. Martin Luther King uses Logos, Ethos, and Pathos in the Letter from Birmingham Jail to fight preconditioned bias in readers’ minds with empathy for the people in the African American communities that’s struggle for rights in society still hasn’t been gained.  

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