The Letter from Birmingham Jail, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama, was a response letter to a dictating statement made by eight Clergymen belonging to the majority white sections. Even while responding to each and every charge of the clergyman, King tries to persuade both the Clergymen as well as the moderate sections of the White population to understand the African-American point of view. From earlier times, the social activists in order to actualize and promote social justice will normally use rhetorical and at the same time persuasive strategies to persuade theirs’ opponents. On those same lines, King in his letter tries to persuade certain sections of the population by adopting Aristotle’s rhetoric devices or three modes of persuasion, Ethos, Pathos and Logos.
Martin Luther King exhibits clear and at the same high sense of Ethos in the letter, starting from the first paragraph itself. Ethos in a written or spoken content is related to the characteristics including the morality of the person. He/she would always take moral and fair decisions, without compromising ethics. Although, he states that he and his secretaries may not read and reply to all the criticism letters, he had made attempt to give a reply to this letter by the Clergymen, whom he views as good people and also as he wants to answer in a patient and reasonable mindset. “I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” (King 1). Through these words, King gives importance to the Clergymen, and this valuing will surely make these Clergymen favourably consider King’s response letter. The other aspect of Ethos is to represent himself/herself as an equivalent to their counterparts and importantly to prove that he/she has the power to handle the affairs and the authority to represent his/her people. King puts forward this aspect by stating how he has served as the President of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, and how that tenure proves that he has apt authority to represent the African-Americans in any level of talks. (King 2). Furthermore, King likens him as a prophet of freedom like Paul, who has been given the authority by his people to represent and talk for them. “Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” (King 3). This elevation of himself, again shows that he is better endowed and understanding person, who can exhibit the mindset and views of the African Americans effectively.
To further impress upon the Clergymen and also the moderate sections about their suppression and plight, and how they have to be understood and treated fairly, King uses Pathos. King tries to evoke Pathos by pointing out in vivid details how the daily lives of the African Americans is becoming living hell due to the brutalities, carried out by the majority sections. “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” (King 14). By pointing out how even a small child has not remained unaffected by the oppression carried out by the Whites, he further evokes sympathy. “…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your sex-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television” (King 14). Through these lines, King wants to showcase to the Clergymen, who criticised him, how his fellow men and woman are struggling to live a life with respect. Pathos was again used as a mode of persuasion in the latter part of the letter, when he talks about how the Police gravely assaulted and repressed the harmless African-Americans. “…if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes…if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys” (King 45). King wrote about these grave incidents as part of Pathos, as he wanted the Clergymen and the moderate sections to believe that injustice is maximally happening to the African-Americans.
To convince and persuade the Clergymen, King uses the rhetoric mode of Logos at the starting of the letter itself. While countering the charge of the Clergymen that he and his people are involving in aggressive actions to fulfil their wants, King points out how they had to take the harsher route after exhausting all the peaceful options. He explains that all the non-violent steps, which have been taken before the protests were started, including collection of facts, negotiation, self purification and direct action, did not provide expected results. They even tried to negotiate with the pertinent authorities, but of no avail. “Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.” (King 6). On the lines of the persuasion mode, Logos, King provides more facts of how negotiations did not yield any positive result, as there were no follow-up actions on the part of the White population. “In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises…moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise.” (King 7). Thus, it is clear that King aptly used Logos to send across the message that the African-Americans did not indulged in aggressive actions at the first instance itself, but were provoked to do, as there were no follow-up actions after the negotiations.
From the above analysis of King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, it is clear that he has aptly used Ethos, Pathos and Logos to persuade his critics or Clergyman, and make them understand his point of view. For that, he first shows and implies to the Clergyman that he is a man of reputation, then secondly, he arouses the sympathy of the readers regarding the oppression and struggles of the African Americans and finally, he aptly uses logic by pointing out how they started indulging in protests as the last resort.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Brimingham Jail.” Frequently requested document.
Standford University, 18 Dec. 2000. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.