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Application of Pathos, Ethos, and Logos in The Letter from Birmingham Jail

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The Letter from Birmingham Jail played a very vital role in the civil rights movement. Written by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 with the purpose of fighting for African Americans’ equalities. He persuades his audience by using three different techniques: pathos, ethos, and logos to justify his reasoning of why segregation needs to be put to an end. By the use of pathos, he appeals to a more personal viewpoint, logos are used to explain his logic and reasoning behind the letter, also he establishes his credibility on the subject of racial discrimination and injustice through ethos.

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Dr. King applies rhetorical appeals to ethos signifying his credibility on the subject of racial injustice and discrimination. He states, “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” which establishes his character. He is inferring to them they are equal, as he isn’t beneath them, and they are not above him. He states at the end of the second paragraph going into the third, “So I am here, along with several members of my staff, because I have basic organizational ties here. Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” At the beginning of the letter, King establishes his integrity expressing the issues with racism and injustices. King demonstrates his eagerness to fight against the injustices for his people, thereby warranting his need to be in Birmingham. Meanwhile, he also states that he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reminding the clergymen he was invited to Birmingham through the affiliation of conferences He also composes the ethos of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by informing them about the operation and affiliation being conducted in the southern states.

Moreover, he also conveys logos throughout the entire letter. He shares not only his beliefs on the situation but also inputs facts to address the cruel conditions being placed in Birmingham. King explains to his audience brutality is known everywhere in the country. He addresses the courts biasness toward Negroes, stating “there have been more unsolved bombings of negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation”; staing there are “Hard, brutal and unbelievable facts. Following these statements he became dissapointed as many catergorized him to be a extremist as he states “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” He then begins to speak about other influencers who have done great things impacting the world. Some of the people he mention who were extremist are Jesus, Amos, Paul, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. He uses this to make the argument of being an injustice or justice extremist. Would you rather be an advocate for the goodwill of people or spread hatred towards those individuals who don’t deserve it?

Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr uses pathos throughout the entire letter to appeal to the emotion of his audience. He highlights a sensory or image as what if this was your brother, sister, mother, or father being mistreated and lynched, drowned, or killed just for being colored. Also conveying the idea of the innocence of a child being taken away by stating through several occasions such as stating “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television.” A child not being able to be a kid for a few hours just because she is colored. His audience especially parents and grandparents relate more than anything telling a good child with no behavior issues they can’t do something they hear or see other children doing. Secondly, he expresses another example of life as an African American confused child “when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”Explaining the effect that segregation had around this period of time. When a child becomes aware his color is the issue of his character and childhood.

In the conclusion of his letter Dr. King turns the emotions onto his audience stating that they wouldn’t feel the same way about the treatment if they were placed in a similar position and policemen were attacking whites instead of colored . For instance he describes the way they were being handled as angry violent dogs biting, the ugly treatment in the jails, pushing and cursing at women, and slapping and kicking men. He portrays a picture for the readers to imagine how they would have experienced the situation if they were in their shoes.

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Finally Martin Luther King Jr uses pathos by responding to his critics and his current situation in a sassy tone. Stating “I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” He answers his critic’s arguments in a jail cell with his own argument while using ethos, logos, and pathos to assist him. He begins his argument with the use of ethos and logos. Which benefited his argument very well, also his inclusiveness of pathos operated very well in his letter due to the reason he vividly portrays conceptions of imagery for the readers to understand him better with his words.


  1. Fulkerson, R. P. (1979). The public letter as a rhetorical form: Structure, logic, and style in king’s “letter from Birmingham jail”. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65(2), 121-136. (
  2. Leff, M. C., & Utley, E. A. (2004). Instrumental and Constitutive Rhetoric in Martin Luther King Jr.’s” Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 7(1), 37-51. (
  3. King Jr, M. L. (1992). Letter from Birmingham jail. UC Davis L. Rev., 26, 835. (
  4. Leff, M. (2003). Rhetoric and dialectic in Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. Anyone who has a view: Theoretical contributions to the study of argumentation, 255-268. (

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