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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963. The logical and well put together letter was written as a response to a statement in the newspaper, which was written by some clergymen. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing the letter in order to defend his organization’s nonviolent strategies. The three principles of rhetoric in Letter from Birmingham Jail – ethos, pathos, and logos – are analyzed in this essay.
Examples of ethos in Letter from Birmingham Jail are seen in the first two paragraphs of the second page. We can see how Martin Luther King uses ethos in Letter from Birmingham Jail to vindicate the ways that his organization uses nonviolent resistance. King does have some automatic ethos due to him being known as a well educated and prominent African American figure. He was also known as a priest, and priests are generally known to be trustworthy. Nonetheless, King still builds ethos for himself. He starts off by talking about events that he, and the people he is writing to, share. Some events that they shared was the participation in the mayoral election. King says, “Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day.” He was using this to defend his organization’s timing of action around the mayoral action, because the clergymen kept arguing that their timing was bad. Also, in the Letter from Birmingham Jail ethos is seen at the start of another argument: “Just as Socrates felt.” King is trying to expose that he, and his organization, are not the only ones that “see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice.” This example of ethos helps convey his reasonability in the matter, and add to his credibility for when he talks about his matters of direct action. In all, he is defending his organization’s nonviolent ways.
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King uses pathos, on page five, in order to back up his affiliation’s pacifist approaches. He does this by showing what the South would be like if they resorted to violent actions, and also how African Americans would trudge along if they were completely compliant to the segregation laws. King says, after discussing that they are nonviolent, “If this philosophy[of nonviolence] had not emerged, by now many streets of the south would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.” He is trying to convince the readers, through a vivid and emotion provoking image, that nonviolence is the best way to handle the situation. He says that “marches” and “pilgrimages to city hall” is the best, pacifist way for his affiliation, and all other African Americans to get out their “pent up resentments and latent frustrations.” Also, King says that the African Americans that have “adjusted to segregation” are “so drained of self respect.” Again, King is pointing out that nonviolent direct action is the best way to go, and he is defending his organization’s strategies of nonviolent direct action. He does not want them to become compliant or violent, and he thinks being a pacifist in the situation is the best way to go.
Another way that King uses pathos in the letter is in the way that he talks about the way people are affected by the segregation. “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, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun town is closed to colored 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 toward white people; 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?’” King is trying to trigger an emotional response from the reader by showing how children and parents are dealing with the unfairness in human rights. His uses of pathos make the reader feel pity and sadness for the Black Community.
Lastly, King utilizes logos, on page two, in order to further support his organization’s nonviolent strategies. He uses his examples in order to logically explain why nonviolent direct action works. King starts off by saying, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community…is forced to confront the issue.” Here, he is defining the goal of nonviolent direct action. The goal is to aggravate the whites until they finally give in to negotiations. King is defending this way, because he knows that violence is wrong, and will just lead to unnecessary spilling of blood. He also explains that “[nonviolence] seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” This is also a logical statement that supports his organization’s ideals of nonviolence.
Throughout the Letter from Birmingham Jail, ethos, pathos, and logos are masterfully applied by Martin Luther King. He takes up for his cause in Birmingham, and his belief that nonviolent direct action is the best way to make changes happen. King has explained this through many examples of racial situations, factual and logical reasoning, and also allusions to Christianity. He writes the letter to catch the eyes of people who want change. King uses rhetorical strategies to strengthen his message to the people, bringing change to many people’s life.
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