Rhetorical Analysis of “The Letter of Birmingham Jail”

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Rhetorical Analysis of “The Letter of Birmingham Jail”

This essay will provide a rhetorical analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It will explore King’s use of ethos, pathos, and logos to craft a powerful argument for civil rights and nonviolent protest. The piece will discuss how King addresses his critics, uses historical and religious references, and constructs his argument to appeal to a broad audience. It will also consider the letter’s historical context and its significance in the civil rights movement. At PapersOwl, you’ll also come across free essay samples that pertain to Analysis.

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The “letter of Birmingham Jail” was written by Martin Luther King on April 16, 1963. He wrote this letter from his jail cell after him and several of his associates were arrested as they nonviolently protested segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The eight clergy men called his present activity “unwise and untimely” and stated that racial matters should be properly pursued in the courts and not the streets. After Martin Luther King looked over the clergymen’s unjust propositions he efficiently constructed his counter argument as he directly started his letter “my dear fellow clergymen”.

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His letter gives the philosophical foundations of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and does a good job by giving specific examples that appeal to logos, pathos, and ethos.

Martin Luther King’s major claims in this letter are to bring forward the injustices that went on in Birmingham. That direct action was the only choice for negation as they were victims of broken promises by the courts and given no alternative choice. The time was now, they were done waiting for change instead they were going to make it happen on their own terms by creating tension that would force them to confront the issue. Throughout his letter he brings forward the injustices of just vs. unjust laws used by the segregator and pushed upon the segregated. The prejudices of the white moderate who say they agree with the goal they seek of freedom but cannot agree with their methods of direct actions. The unfairness as they are seen as “extremists”, the activism of taking extreme measures, for their nonviolent direct-action protest just because they want the same freedom as whites. MLK wonders about the churches and why they’re not trying to help the black community in their struggle and support their movement, as Christians use to have moral and ethical power. Lastly, he argues that it doesn’t matter how admirable the police are when they are maintaining the immoral end of racial injustice. These themes of injustice were the push for his plan of direct action as he states and supports each theme with clear and factual evidence.

Martin Luther King first starts off his letter by using a strong ethos appeal, by establishing his credibility to the clergy men after they referenced him as an “outsider coming in.” He first addresses them by saying, “My Dear Fellow Clergymen.” By saying this MLK is considering him as one of them showing that he is no different and deserves the same respect as they would want to be given. He then continues to address them in his introduction with respect and a cordial tone. Not trying to fight or disrespect them as he refers to them as “men of genuine good will and that your criticism is sincerely set forth” (King 273), but still speaks strongly upon his side of the statements that were made. MLK then establishes his credibility by saying, “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” (King 273). He makes this statement to show he is not an outsider but presents himself as an insider, as he is the president of the conference. He is informed about the crisis going on in Birmingham as he has a chapter in their state and was invited there to help fight the discrimination. Showing that he takes the cultural ideas of him and his followers very seriously and is there to fight for them.

Martin Luther King also establishes ethos throughout his letter by outlining his own culture of religious ancestors and deliberating his own church leadership. King references a dozen historical figures from Abraham Lincoln, to Paul of Tarsus, Socrates, to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and many more. He Compares his fight for freedom with the Apostle Paul and the prophets fight for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King then backs up his view of just and unjust laws with many political figures who set laws that were made to be broken for the rights of the people that faced injustices. As he refers to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego “It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire” (King 277). He continues these connections all throughout his letter to further justify his actions, stating if these large political figures have done it in the past to voice their opinion and be heard than what’s any different than him doing the same. As King is just following the path of his ministerial ancestors. This appeals to ethos as it validates king’s quality educational background.

King also uses serious logical arguments throughout his letter as well, his letter states the facts of the situation going on in front of them in a way the clergymen failed to do. Each one of the arguments put onward by the clergymen MLK put down and refuted with facts that were undeniable. He analyzed his opponents’ statements put forth then picks it apart backing up each little part with his collection of facts. He uses logos to first bring forward the racial injustices that engulf Birmingham stating, “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case” (King 274). After stating the racial injustices that have been going on for too long he continues to logically reply to the question asked Why direct action? “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” (King 274). Showing that his plan for direct action is not unwise and supposed to be untimely as they have waited to long for change and now it’s time to force negotiation. He then addresses the clergymen’s anxiety over their willingness to break laws. As King states that just laws should be followed, and unjust laws should be openly disobeyed. In order to get people to agree with him on just vs. unjust laws he needs to do more than appeal to the readers pathos and ethos. He does this by describing just and unjust laws from multiple different angles, in ways the reader could relate to. “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected” (King 277)? This puts it in perspective making it hard for the reader to refute. King also uses a strong sense of logos when describing the two sides of the community “one is a force of complacency, made up in part of negros who, as a result of long years of oppression, that have adjusted to segregation” (King 279), and “The other force is bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence” (King 279). This passage in the letter shows the clergymen the two different sides. MLK doesn’t take time to justify these two groups of their rights and wrongs, but rather backs them up with facts that result in their actions. Showing that even if he remained unbiased that the black community would have acted regardless, and that the nonviolent action could very well have turned violent without the help of his organization. He backs up each of the clergymen’s arguments with logical evidence to his stand point on the topic.

Martian Luther King was also good at incorporating strong pathos into his letter. He made the reader sympathize with what the black people were going through on a day to day basis. He painted a picture of the violence they faced, the injustices, and brutality they had to endure. He pulls on the audience’s emotions making them more likely to side with himself rather than the clergy men. One of the statements made by the clergymen was that they warmly commended the Birmingham police for keeping “order” and “preventing violence”. MLK says “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes” (King 283). He uses such intense words in this short sentence that really just leaves a picture in your mind. Showing the readers that the cops were actually the violent ones in the nonviolent protest that was going on, they’re the ones causing the harm instead of preventing it. Not only does he describe the brutality given by the cops he also describes the injustices done by the people and the community.

King says “having to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told the fun town is closed to color children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness towards white people” (King 275). He continues to go on and on about the things they go through every day. This excerpt is strong appealing to the emotions of parents as no mom or dad would ever want their kids to feel that pain and carry it with them. He is also telling them this needs to be stopped and can be with the next generation. MLK also includes many metaphors in the letter to create that image in the readers mind and to make important arguments. For example, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity” (King 279). He compares the social situation with an “elegy” and the potential future to a “creative psalm”; racial injustice to “quicksand”, and the ultimate goal as a “solid rock”. King had to use his platform to set it straight as there were only newspapers at the time to capture the major brutality’s if they were lucky. He used numerous examples of sad and heart aching pathos, he did it to get his point across, making the white moderates feel what it was like to live in the life of a colored person. King also squeezed in a couple uplifting pathos reminding us of the beautiful opportunity’s that await them. As he closes the letter by saying “Let us hope in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (King 284).

Some may say Martian Luther King could persuade anyone and anything, by the choice of his words and how he made them flow together. In “Letter of Birmingham Jail” MLK does just that. The most remarkable takeaway from this letter is Kings overall tone he keeps throughout as he could have approached his audience multiple different ways. King kept a serious but sincere voice getting straight to the point, but also persuading his audience. He refutes each one of the clergymen’s statements, breaking it down and tearing it apart by intertwining the use of logos, pathos, and ethos. By doing this he validates why his nonviolent protest is necessary for growth and to overcome the prejudices that were happening in Birmingham. Not only did he bring those injustices forward, but his letter was the stepping stone for the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, as justice was finally approaching.

Works Cited

  1. King, Martin Luther. “‘The Letter of Birmingham Jail.’” Discovering Arguments: An
  2. Introduction to Critical Thinking and Writing, with Readings, by Dean Memering and William Palmer, Prentice Hall, 2005, pp. 273–284.”
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Rhetorical Analysis of “The Letter of Birmingham Jail". (2021, Jun 07). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/rhetorical-analysis-of-the-letter-of-birmingham-jail/