September 23, 2013
Letter From a Birmingham Jail
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter to his fellow clergymen in April, 1963 after bring arrested for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. His letter was in response to statements the clergymen had made condemning and criticizing King for his “unwise and untimely”protests (King 1). In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King used the methods of ethos, pathos, and logos not only to justify the actions that led to his arrest, but also to admonish those who sympathized with his plight, yet did little to change the inequality that existed. King recognized that before he could persuade his audience to understand his point of view, he needed to gain their trust. His ethical appeal, or ethos, is evident when he writes: “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth” (1). In any persuasive argument, an individual has a better chance of convincing others to listen if they begin by showing they are understanding and fair. With this statement, whether King really believed it or not, he set his audience at ease by saying he knew they had good intentions. To further utilize ethos, King established his credibility by outlining his qualifications. He wrote, “ 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” (1). This statement not only gave his credentials, but it also provided evidence that he was someone of rank and should be respected.
Stansbury 2 The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had invited King to Birmingham to take part in nonviolent demonstrations. Birmingham was perhaps the most segregated city in the country during this time, which made it a very relevant city to stage a protest in. King outlined these facts for the clergymen in a very logical way, thus employing logos to make his point that some laws needed to be changed, and other laws needed to be followed: “Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters” (4). Stating this fact, it is clear that unlawful actions had been pervasive in the community, and they had prevented citizens from their legal right to vote. He further questioned the law itself, by reminding the clergymen that the oppressed had “no part in enacting or devising the law” (4) that allowed segregation to begin with. He took his argument even further, when he pointed out the fallacy in their statement that the direct action of protest should be condemned because it precipitates violence. He replied that was about as logical as “condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery” (5). The time for change was long overdue as King reminded his readers “justice too long delayed is justice denied” (3). To cement the idea that the time to act was upon them, King again used the rhetorical tool of logos to make his plea for change: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights” (3). He was done waiting. He went on to use the emotional appeal of