Pathos, Logos, Ethos in Letter from Birmingham Jail

On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. This well-written and logical letter was written in response to a newspaper article written by clergymen. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter to defend his nonviolent strategies. This essay examines the three principles of rhetoric found in Letter From Birmingham Jail: ethos, logos, and pathos.

The first and second paragraphs of page 2 show examples of ethos found in letter from Birmingham Jail. It is clear that Martin Luther King used ethos in Letter From Birmingham Jail to defend the nonviolent resistance he uses. King is a prominent African American figure and well-educated. This gives him an automatic ethos. King was also a respected priest and is generally trusted. King maintains an ethos. King begins by talking about the events he and his readers share. They shared the participation in the mayoral elections. King said, “Then it occurred that Birmingham’s mayoral elections were coming up in March. We quickly decided to postpone our action until after the election day.” This was because the clergymen continued to argue that the timing of the mayoral action was poor. The Letter from Birmingham Jail also shows ethos at the beginning of an argument. “Just like Socrates felt.” King wants to show that his reasoning is not a faulty one and that ethos can help him to be credible when speaking about direct action. He is simply defending the nonviolent methods of his organization.

King uses pathos on page five to support his pacifist affiliation. King shows the South as it would look if they resort to violence and how African Americans would cope if they adhered to segregation laws. After discussing the fact that they are nonviolent, King states, “If this philosophy[of] nonviolence hadn’t emerged, by now many roads of the south would be, I am convinced. Beating bloody” is his way of convincing the reader that nonviolence is the best approach to the situation. King states that “marches” or “pilgrimages at city hall” are the best, nonviolent way for his group and other African Americans to release their “pent up frustrations and latent angers” and that his organization’s nonviolent direct actions are the best. King does not want them becoming compliant or violent and believes that being pacifists in this situation is the best thing.

King’s letter uses pathos to describe the effects of segregation on people. When your six-year-old daughter suddenly finds your tongue bent and your speech slurred as you try to explain why she cannot go to Fun town, and you see the beginnings of her mental illness. King’s goal is to elicit an emotional response by showing parents and children how they deal with the injustice in human rights. The use of pathos makes the reader feel sorry for the Black Community.

King uses logos on page 2 to support his nonviolent strategies. King uses his examples to explain how nonviolent direct actions work. King begins by saying that nonviolent direct actions seek to create a crisis and foster tension so that a community…is forced confront the issue.” This is how King defines the goal of nonviolent indirect action. This is to make the whites more aggressive until they give in to negotiation. King defends this position because he is aware that violence is not right and will only lead to more blood. King also explained that “[nonviolence] seeks to dramatize [the issue] that it cannot be ignored.” This is a logic statement that supports his organization’s ideals for nonviolence.

Martin Luther King has masterfully applied the ethos, pathos and logos to the Letter from Birmingham Jail. King takes up his cause in Birmingham and believes that direct nonviolent action is the best way for him to effect change. King has used many examples to illustrate his point, including racial situations and factual and logical reasoning. He also made allusions and references to Christianity. King writes the letter in order to draw the attention of those who desire change. King uses rhetorical strategies in order to reinforce his message to the people and bring about change in many people’s lives.

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