Rhetorical Appeals in Letter From Birmingham Jail

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In the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr, he responds to the accusations labeled against him by the clergymen to justify his actions. In his response, he successfully appeals to the readers through Aristotle's three appeals: pathos, logos, and ethos throughout the letter.

First, Martin Luther King Jr uses pathos by creating an emotional response to his audience about his story and what he had to face. Although he was confined in prison, he found space and time to write his letter to paint a picture for readers of what it was like to be an African American. It was the reason he could not stay idle in Atlanta as he was concerned with the many injustices occurring in Birmingham, a city he considered the most thoroughly segregated place in the United States. He does this by appealing to the emotions and aspirations of the readers. King said that they were victims of broken promises as merchants failed to remove humiliating racial signs. He attracted the emotion of parents by giving an example of how black children had been affected by racial segregation and how parents found difficulty in explaining the situation. They find their 'tongue twisted' (King 2) trying to explain to their children why they could not visit an amusement park, which was advertised on TV because they are black. Furthermore, he reiterated that such an explanation would make a child develop hatred and stereotypes for white people. King did not only explain what the children went through, but he also wanted to appeal to the White Americans. He wanted them to feel their pain and empathize with the struggles of the African American communities.

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As a matter of fact, King emphasized the importance of his arguments and described what the American South would be like if the African Americans decided to adopt violent actions instead of his peaceful protests. He was “convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood” (King 4). This quote appeals to readers' emotions by using provoking image. He argued that violent demonstrations would call for retaliation from the white community, and the whole American South would be in chaos and war. So keeping a peaceful and bold protest will deliver and carry out their arguments and get the attention they deserve.

Second, Martin Luther King Jr. uses logos to persuade his readers with factual evidence. He wrote the letter like an attorney, defining what was just and unjust from different perspectives. Also, he employed logical reasoning throughout this letter, outlining a couple of facts the eight white clergymen failed to consider. For instance, he implies the clergymen are partial in obeying the law and “[break] some laws and obeying others?' (King 3). Using factual evidence, King justifies why nonviolent demonstrations and disobedience is the key to their “constitutional and God-given rights” (King 3). The nonviolent direct actions are meant to cause tension that would create an avenue for negotiations. While the clergymen consider their demonstrations unwise and untimely, they failed “to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations” (King 1).

King outlines four steps for nonviolent campaigns, which they had already gone through in Birmingham: the collection of facts to establish whether there is injustice, being open for negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. He writes that there was compelling evidence that there were racial injustices in the Black community . Despite this evidence, and even after reaching out to their city fathers for negotiations, they failed to enter into negotiations in goodwill. The merchants gave them promises they were unable to fulfill. Realizing it was difficult to rely on them, they resorted to self-purification and needed a 'direct-action program for the Easter season'(King 2) to impose pressure on the merchants, which would open the doors for negotiation for the neglected Black community.

Lastly, King uses ethos to convince his readers using examples of historical figures to prove his credibility. King was cautious when he described himself, and while framing his argument, he proved that he understood and acknowledged American cultural ideals. In the introduction, he called the clergymen 'fellow clergymen,' (King 4) meaning they are his equal. Also, he recognized their status and sincerity in his response, acknowledging their credibility as men of goodwill who respect the teachings of the Bible. Although he introduced himself as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he wrote that it was an honor, for he did not consider himself the most excellent political strategist or claim to have the foremost authority on Jesus. In most of his arguments in the letter, he referred to great leaders and philosophers and the contemporary worlds such as Abraham Lincoln and Socrates. Just like them, King argues that these people were righteous sufferers of persecution, freedom fighters, and countercultural visionaries. He points out how Socrates felt the need for uncertainty or tension in mind for individuals to awaken from their stress and struggle and enter into a realm of objective appraisal and creative analysis. Just like Socrates, they used nonviolent actions to create that tension in society for people to realize they need to act.


Within this letter, he writes his life’s work and purpose to persuade his audience of the neglected African American community with pathos, uses logos by emphasising how laws were not fair and shouldn't be treated so lightly, and uses ethos to explain his logical reasoning with historical heroes with similar ideas that developed way back then. In summary, King was successfully able to incorporate Aristotle's three appeals which ultimately made a clear and persuasive argument.

Work Cited

  1. King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic, Aug 1963, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/letter-from-birmingham-jail/552461/.
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Rhetorical Appeals in Letter From Birmingham Jail. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/how-martin-luther-king-jr-appeals-to-his-readers-in-letter-from-birmingham-jail/
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