The Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King
The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time he was imprisoned in jail after the demonstration of a peaceful protest against segregation in Birmingham city. In King’s letter he intentionally responds to criticisms of the eight white clergymen on him and his fellow activists for making such a foolish and inappropriate acts. He addresses the clergymen’s concerns in regards to his actions with a formal tone. His main audiences are the clergymen and white moderates who are against the black community movement. Throughout the letter King used a combination of ethos, logos, and pathos to express his frustration towards the criticisms from clergymen.
vThis allows his audiences to view him as a trustworthy man, who brings people out of darkness like prophets did in the past. Even though King’s nonviolent campaign is criticized to be potentially harmful to Birmingham city, he explains all of his actions with clarity that he and his fellow activists do not intend to create violence. He mentions that “we started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the question, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?” (7). This statement helps prove King’s position that there is no intentional use of violence. He is not reckless in his actions, instead he instructs a well-planned and organized strategy.
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Furthermore, King references his Civil Rights Movement and labels himself to many of the historical figures. One being Socrates who provokes tension in society to bring people out of the myths and false beliefs that pull away the creativity. Another historical figure is Amos who is an extremist for justice. He often uses a comparison strategy towards the religious and liberal movements. As a result, it enhances his credibility that he is a well-educated and sincere man who have knowledge of religion and history.
Dr. King’s usage of logical argument is very strong in the letter. Take an example of his argument over the anxiety of clergymen on black men’s willingness to break the law. He agrees that it is strange for him to break the law while urging people to respect the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation. However, he suggests that when the laws are unjust it is not wrong to disobey them. King makes a very logical set of distinctions between just and unjust laws to defend his action.
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a minority inflicts on a minority that is not binding in itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. (14-15)
Here, King gives a very precise definition based on the fact that is hard to refute. He tries to distinguish the laws in detail to help his audiences understand. King uses a situation of black people in Alabama to support his idea, pointing out the absence of equality in laws. He presents his views like a lawyer who is to debate in a court, and ask the judge if the laws should be followed? If the laws were created to bring advantaged to the privileged group? Moreover, King combines his own experience when he was arrested due to an unjust law. He states, “it is not wrong for the law to require permit to protest but it becomes an unjust law when it works against the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest” (16). Surely, his examples and experiences of the unjust laws put the clergymen in a dilemma given its extent of legitimacy. Additionally, he also rebuts his audiences with a pattern of logical questions to make them think twice about their dispute. For example, when his actions are condemned to stimulate violence (although peaceful) King asks “if this assertion can be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth…” (20). King shows sophistication by using rhetorical questions, and combining a morality with reason to provoke his opponents’ thoughts.
Another example of logos usage in Dr. King’s letter is when he disputes with the clergymen for labeling his activity as extreme. He expresses his argument in a disappointed tone and mentioned to the clergymen:
I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodyness” that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable devil. I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. (22)
Here, he cleverly identifies his position as being neutrally effective by sorting out the current existence in the African American group in USA. Of course, he uses the two groups as an example to contrast his position. One group completely lost their self-respect, and adopted the law of segregation; and the other group who are full of hatred toward white people. With this source it directly implied that King neither belong to these two groups. Even though he is disappointed with the clergymen’s statement, he doesn’t let his emotion overcome the logical reasoning. He continues sending a message with a polite and sincere tone that “if this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood” (22). King surely draws a potential picture for his audience, convincing the clergymen and white moderates that his method is an approachable way to solve problem.
King’s letter consists of plentiful of logical arguments, but it wouldn’t be powerful if there is no emotional appeal in place. Pathos is one of the tactic that he uses along with the logos. King’s response to the clergymen’s suggestion as, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” (9). He understands that the clergymen value a peaceful way, but he insists that in order for negotiation to happen, direct action must be implemented. He continues to provide reasons why it is needed to take an immediate action, and end his explanation with a sorrowful statement “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue” (9). “Monologue” is a word of choice that King uses to describe how miserable black people is to live under the shadow of other people. This last statement which appeals to emotion causes King’s audience to acknowledge the necessity of taking direct action. Moreover, King utilizes a significant amount of pathos when clergymen blame his acts as untimely. Given this occurrence King speaks on behalf of the African American community with a sarcastic tone. He asserts that he was never involved in any direct-action movement that is timed accordingly to those who have never suffered from segregation. He provides an image of how segregation looks like to the clergymen.
When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled police curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity…. when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (11)
It can be seen that King uses a repetition tactic in his rhetorical to emphasize the suffering of black Americans very well. It surely hurts the children and families emotionally who face these situations. By this approach, he was able to make white people feel guilty of themselves. Despite lots of implementation of sad emotions in King’s letter to justify his action, he also expresses a strong positive emotion toward his work as well. He states that, “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom” (34). In this statement, King demonstrates his strong belief and passion towards his audience that he is not afraid of the challenges. Plus, he is trying to win people’s heart by tying his dream to America’s core values. Lastly, he closes his letter with a message toward the clergymen which reads: “I hope this letter find you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergymen and a Christian brother” (King, Stanford 40). King clearly shows respect to clergymen by addressing their relationship as “Christian brother” in hope to encourage their deep feelings to take an action for the right cause as he did.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter is fully supported with logos, ethos and pathos which allow him to effectively fight over the clergymen’s argument. He knows how to use appropriate language, tone, and allusion to persuade his audience. He addresses every concerns in an academic way that is precise; and is able to create a connection between him and his audience on the following issues based on his point of view. Thus, he successfully uses rhetorical moves to persuade his audiences and justify his reasons for the Civil Rights Movement.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” August 1963, https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf. Accessed: 18 Feb.2019
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail. Accessed 28 Feb.2019