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Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Letter from Birmingham Jail

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On April 16, 1963, DR. Martin Luther King, Jr responded in the newspaper which had been written by some clergymen urging him to abandon the demonstrations which he was leading in Birmingham. In a letter, well known as the “letter from a Birmingham jail”, the King defended his organization’s non-violent strategies through three major principles of rhetoric; Pathos, ethos, and logos. Refutation is also a major aspect apparent throughout the letter. Actually, the three rhetoric devices have all been built around this refutation aspect. In this essay therefore, the focus will be on assessing how the King has made use of the refutation, pathos, ethos, and logos in persuading and convincing the audience to align to his school of thoughts and actions.

In the Birmingham letter, the King employs refutation throughout the letter to defend his course of action and to the larger extent that of his organization. While responding to the “unwise and untimely” accusations of his actions by the clergy, the King logically refuted this by stating that “the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative” (King, 1). In this statement, the king tries to argue that his actions are not out-of-vacuum but rather are supported by a rich portfolio of facts and therefore his actions are wise and well called for. These facts emanate from the behavior of the whites who have structured the city in such a way that they are at a greater advantage at the expense of black Americans. Having been pushed to the corner, the blacks have no other alternative but to demonstrate. Regarding the accusation on the timing of demonstrations, the King states that “…and so we speedily decided to postpone action until after Election Day” (King 2).In this statement, the King is defending his cause of action against the clergy accusations that his actions are not properly timed. To prove them that they are wrong, the king brought about this statement which clearly shows that he is not out of order and is rather considerate on his timing of actions.

From the letter, the author has also managed to use ethos from two major approaches. The first one is what is known as ethos by default. In this, the author is a renowned and respected leader fighting for the wellbeing of African –Americans. He is an educated person and a priest who has wide influence especially in southern America. Therefore, the fact that Martin Luther King is an educated African-American figure and also is a priest qualifies him to have automatic ethos. In this, it is good to note that priest are usually trusted and more so respected something which gives them an automatic embodiment of ethos. The second way in which ethos have been developed in the letter is through the language used. In the first two paragraphs, the King starts by stating what he and his audience share in common. This is the participation to the Mayoral election. The king says that “then it occurred to us that the March election was ahead, and so we speedily decided to postpone action until after Election Day” (King, 2). In this, the author purposes to depict his understanding of important events and the respect he and his organization bestow on crucial matters of the society. Therefore, there is no way the clergy can purport that the King is not sensitive to the time issue considering he not only participate in elections but he also asks his supporters to refrain from any kind of social unrest during an election time. The king also uses another ethos by stating that “Just as Socrates felt” to sensitive the fact that it is not only him who is feeling the need to use non-violent means to condemn the increased discrimination of black Americans (King, 2). Instead, Socrates, who is considered the father of philosophy also made use of nonviolent demonstrations to achieve his intended objectives during his time. Therefore, there is no way that this approach can be considered illegal or bad just because it is the King who is leading it.

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The King makes use of pathos on page five of the letter to support his affiliation’s pacifist tactics. He accomplishes this by depicting how the South would look like if his organization had resulted to violent methods, and also how the Negroes would trudge along if they were totally complying with the segregation policies. After highlighting his non-violence approaches to condemning discriminative rules, the author states that “if this philosophy (of nonviolence) had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood” (King 4). In this testament, the author is convincing the audience via a clear and emotion-provoking approach, that the nonviolence method is the way to go in handling the situation. Through this statement, the king also paints a vivid mental picture on how the situation would be if actually violent methods were being used by his organization. The King further displays the use of ethos when he stated that all those black Americans who had adjusted to the segregation laws were simply “drained of self-respect” (King 4). This phrase by the king is purely meant to touch the emotional aspect of the readers so that they could see that his actions were really justified.

In the Birmingham letter, the author makes use of logos on page two to further support his nonviolent approaches. In this, the author states that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue” (King 2). In this statement, the author is stating the goal of nonviolent actions. In simple terms, it is to force the Whites until they accept to come to the table of negotiation. This statement further reveals that the king is defending his tactics since he is aware that violence is bad, and will usually results to pointless spilling of blood .The author also says that the nonviolence approaches seeks to “dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” (King 2). This statement reveals the major purpose of all the social unrest planned by the king. The major aim was not to be violent but rather to create a hot air environment until the whites gave in to discussions.

The letter logically and intelligently blends the refutation aspect with the rhetorical elements of ethos, pathos, and logos to bring about an amazing work of literature. The King’s reference to Biblical episodes is also an amazing way to keep the readers engaged and also persuade them to align to a certain school of thoughts. For instance, when the clergymen referred the author as an extremist, he responded with a series of rhetorical questions; “Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” and also “Was not Jesus an extremist in love?” (King 4) (King 4). In this, the King capitalizes on the word ‘extreme” bestowed on him by the clergy and explains it from another perspective. This logical approach is meant to make the audience understand that what the king is doing is not bad but rather important for the greater good on the course of justice.

From the above analysis, it is clear that the use of ethos, pathos, and logos have effectively and logically convinced the audience that the segregation laws are unjust and therefore they must end. Throughout the letter, the King has applied these rhetorical devices in a manner which the audience won’t fail to align to his line of thoughts. The structure of the letter has also been appropriately laid down with each paragraph addressing a specific theme. This does not only contribute to the ease in understanding the overall message of the letter but also in perceiving the various rhetorical and other literal devices applied in this work. Such amazing blending of facts, analogies, logic, refutation, and other persuasive approaches in literature usually enhances the realization of intended goals as far as convincing of the audience is concerned.

Work Cited

  1. King Jr., Martin Luther. “ Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The Writers Presence: A Pool of Readings. Ed. Donald McQuad and Robert Atwan. 7th Ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2012. 716-731. Print.
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Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Letter from Birmingham Jail. (2021, September 07). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from
“Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Edubirdie, 07 Sept. 2021,
Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Letter from Birmingham Jail. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2023].
Ethos, Pathos and Logos in Letter from Birmingham Jail [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 07 [cited 2023 Dec 5]. Available from:
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