“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one of the greatest influential writings by Dr. Martin Luther King. He wrote this epic letter as a political prisoner on the 16th of April, 1963. Dr. King, along with many other civil rights leaders, was arrested for disregarding an injunction by a judge.
King wrote a letter from prison in response to criticism he faced for his nonviolent campaigns and activism. The letter is directed at white supremacists and their powerless victims. This letter is one of the celebrated pieces of writing and has been regarded as a jewel in literature.
Even after 50 years, this letter is reviewed in literature circles for its incredible value, message, and writing prowess. It is especially praised for its use of rhetorical appeals.
King’s ability to appeal to the crowd and the overview of rhetorical appeals makes this rhetorical analysis example a class apart from others.
“Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is one of the perfect examples of the “The pen is mightier than the sword” adage. Dr. King uses the letter to protest against unjust laws and persuade the public to stand against racial inequality. The letter is a fantastic example of its effective use of ethos, pathos, and logos.
King uses ethos to call for unity against racism in society while simultaneously fighting for Human Rights. Similarly, he uses pathos to evoke an emotional reaction in readers and encourages them to take action. King further reinforces his argument with logos. He offers various reasons that project the real meaning of just and unjust laws.
The letter offers logical explanations for King’s stand against white supremacy. It is written in a reflective tone to attract both the victims of exploitation and those controlling them. This letter is also an example of King’s writing prowess and passion for equality.
Summary of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
Martin Luther King Jr composed this letter in response to “A Call for Unity,” written by white clergymen who opposed his nonviolent protest against racial inequality. The letter explains his actions and presents arguments that support his stance.
As a justification for his actions and goals, he uses rational, logical, emotional, and credible arguments.
Nowhere in the letter does he say that clergy members are wrong; instead, he propounds that government must provide equality for all races. Finally, he ends the letter by stating that he is just another human being wanting to develop a better and equal society.
Ethos: King uses ethos in the introduction of the letter. He establishes a moral connection by projecting himself as a man of authority (title of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s President). The ethos appeal is made stronger by using words like ‘president’ and ‘every.’
Furthermore, he compares and specifies prominent personalities such as St. Augustine, Apostle Paul, Jesus Christ, etc., to establish a base for the letter. He consistently tries to convince his audience that he wants a revolutionary change to occur. King was a distinguished speaker who knew how to mix rhetorical devices in the best way to persuade his audience.
Moreover, demonstrating immediately recognizable characters is an excellent example of ethos in literary works. Providing such examples allows people to draw analogies and offer a comparable point to prove his credibility.
Pathos: The letter describes the miserable condition endured by African Americans for a long to evoke sympathy from the readers. This is a perfect case of using pathos to elicit emotions in the readers’ minds.
King contends that detaining members and treating them poorly violates human rights. His statement was justified because the protest was nonviolent, and the police violated human rights. He further maintains that the Black community has waited long for human rights, and racism is a violation of the nation’s law and the law of God.
King argues that the Blacks must be given their ‘God-given’ rights while pinpointing that snatching away the right is against the constitution. He further states that democratic countries uphold freedom of speech for each citizen if the actions do not violate legal limits. However, he points out that it is not the situation in reality.
The letter persuades the reader to know and understand the extent of human rights violations. This was proved when the local authorities made the arrest. King used pathos extensively in the letter against white supremacy. As an appeal to his readers, he highlights the life of African Americans who lead pathetic life.
He discusses how Blacks are being stripped of their privileges and how poverty is rampant in his letter. He argues that zero privileges and mistreatment contributed to their backwardness. Due to this, the letter appeals exclusively to the emotions of Blacks. The pathos used in this letter readily assists people in understanding the concept of emotional appeal.
Logos: King understands that captivating readers’ emotions are not enough; they also need to be provided with logical explanations. This is precisely what he does with his rational appeals. One of the eminent pieces of logic used in the letter is the argument on ‘unjust law.’
He further provides a list of such definitions and laws and explains how they are enforced. King unravels how discrimination is perpetuated in society with common logic and understanding without running into logical fallacies.
In his view, the law that people are supposed to follow and the law that was used to arrest him are different, and this is simply the action of an ‘unjust law.’ He further justifies his presence in Birmingham by satirically highlighting the injustice meted out to him and his friends. King states that he and other leaders protesting non-violently were “invited” to prison.
One can find the use of antithesis, parallelism, and alliteration – rhetorical devices in this letter. Some of the lines that highlight the use of antithesis are: “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
Conclusion: The letter’s proper use of ethos, pathos, and logos, combined with King’s passion, make it stand out as outstanding literature and a motivational message. Furthermore, King establishes himself as a trustworthy person by utilizing ethos. He lets people know that he is expecting a change that stands out in the history of America.
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