Letter from Birmingham Jail Analysis
When Martin Luther King wrote the “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, he was responding to an article by eight clergymen. The clergymen, through the article, had criticized King’s involvement in the non-violent protests that took place in Birmingham. The non-violent demonstrations were against racial prejudice experience in Birmingham by black Americans. That led to his arrest and it was while he was in jail that the clergymen wrote the article to which he was responding. Although the letter is a response to the clergymen, the contents also appeal to other groups of people. He highlights the many issues facing the black community due to what he calls unjust laws such as the segregation laws. He goes into the criticisms raised by the clergymen one by one, offering a response and an explanation for each. With the letter, he aimed to spur change that would result in desegregation and equality among Americans. He sought to convince the clergymen that it was time for a change and that change was necessary.
On the clergymen’s criticism of him advocating for the breaking of some laws, his response is an appeal to logos. He states that there exist just laws and unjust laws. To him, unjust laws, such as the segregation law, should not be honored. He explains that unjust laws go against morality whereas just laws are in tandem with moral law and the law of God. By bringing in the issue of man-made laws and laws of God, King appeals to logos. He forwards a logic argument to convince the clergymen of the injustices of some laws. He also argues that the demonstrations only occurred since the white leaders left the black community with no other alternative. Therefore, that was the only way they could voice their grievances. He further says that any attempt at negotiation had failed and even when there seemed to be a success, the whites broke their promises.
In his letter, King quotes several authorities that the clergymen recognize and possibly respect. There is a strong appeal to ethos when he quotes St. Augustine’s words to justify his breaking of unjust laws. In St. Augustine’s words, unjust laws cannot be laws. Since he believes the clergymen respect St. Augustine and regard him highly, he invokes his name to convince the clergymen to look at the laws from a different viewpoint. He also quotes Thomas Jefferson’s words to show that all men are equal regardless of race or color. That is in support of his stand against segregation laws, as they seem to suggest that some people are superior to others. Here, as an appeal to ethos, he quotes an influential American that the clergymen are likely to identify with. He also responds to the question of why he was in Birmingham by comparing his actions to those of the Apostle Paul and prophets in the Bible who left their hometowns and cities to go preach God’s message to other nations. In quoting the Bible, he argues his case that it was a call of duty.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s address of the clergymen as, “my dear clergymen” is an appeal to pathos. By addressing them in that manner, he seeks to connect with them as one of them. The connection is on a personal basis. He acknowledges their positions as leaders in the church through his salutation. He further indirectly suggests that the clergymen are at risk to suffer injustice in one way or another if they turn a blind eye on the injustices going on. His view is that injustice one person would indirectly lead to injustices to others as everyone is interconnected in a way. The threat to the justice of the clergymen is an appeal to pathos and it seeks to move them to consider such possibilities of other injustices arising from one act of injustice.
By applying rhetorical strategy, Martin Luther King Jr. manages to address the issues involving racial segregation and the injustices that result from segregation. He is able to appeal to ethos, logos, and pathos in a bid to convince his audience of his ideologies and viewpoints. Although the letter is addressed to the eight clergymen, his message reaches out to the moderate whites and the blacks as well. To him, all the groups involved are important in the process of abolishing the segregation laws. All parties involved must act in one direction to come to a solution. Without that, the change they sought would not be possible.
Works Cited: King, Martin L. Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The Atlantic Monthly 212.2 (1963): 78 – 88.