MLK’S Letter from Birmingham Jail

In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King displays his argumentative acumen and presents himself not only as an erudite person but also a credible one through the proper word choice, didactic examples and reference to history which he puts across in elegance and flair of a prolific writer. His spiritual leader ethos and not just a learned person become apparent through his discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and Jesus. And that of a trustworthy person is also brought out in his comparison of his situation to that of Paul. All this is done so as to gain credibility of the clergymen who accused him in their first letter. Dr. King also uses pathos effectively so as to enable the clergymen not just understand the situation but also feel emotionally what they are going through. The use of pathos allows him to tap into the emotions of the reader which makes his communication effective. By proper word choice, this technique is used to incite guilt and understanding among his readers (Ryley 1470).

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Dr. King states the logic and reason behind his actions which has been questioned by the clergy. He makes use of logos to achieve this in important instances like the reason behind direct action which he explains it’s because of reneged promises on the removal of humiliating racial signs.


Through the use of ethos, the writer qualities of writing are seen. Martin Luther King in his letter from Birmingham Jail, his choice of words, his tone, sentences length, consideration of others opinions and concerns stating depicts to the reader who he is as a person. He uses ethos in his speech to depict his credibility which he being an African-American understood well enough the discrimination and segregation experienced by his black brothers. This he effectively does when he say, “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities…as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” A spiritual leader ethos is created by Dr. King when he quotes St. Augustine, another spiritual leader, “an unjust law is no law at all.” By demonstrating the knowledge of the circumstances and conditions of the early Christian leaders, this ethos is further developed by him. Dr. King shows that he is also on a spiritual mission apart from just his knowledge of Paul’s response to Macedonian earlier on when he compares his situation to that of Paul by saying, “Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” By stating certain facts, Dr. King incorporates his feelings in the speech, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” This effectively develops his ethos as a caring person and it changes the understanding and feelings of the reader. The reader is invited to be their own judges when his dissenters are quoted by Dr. King and a sense of fairness is created. For instance, he makes use of the quote, “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The new administration is introduced as old and segregationists in his discussion through the use of this quote which is from the clergy. Immediate action is therefore demanded with the conditions under them (Lacroix).

Ethos is also purposely used by King to gain the clergymen’s respect. Famous people, respected well enough by the American white society, are quoted by King in his argument in order to gain trust. Ethos is obviously used when he refers to one member of his future audience. “I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non-segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.” Guilt is then incited by Dr. King in the audience by when they don’t follow the Christianity principals that these actions subscribe to logically. This particular ethos can also be regarded as pathos and logos.


Our reasoning or logic is appealed to by logos. Logos involves the presentation of the reasoning behind the action or position. Dr. King makes use of logos in various parts of his letter by supporting all his arguments and clarifying the reasoning behind them. For instance he responds to the clergymen’s claim of the demonstration being untimely and unwise by stating that there is no alternative left for the Negro community but to be ready for direct action. This claim is supported when he talks of the city fathers refusal of negotiating in good-faith when the Negro community wanted to negotiate. He further gives more support for this argument by describing an incident in September when in the negotiation of the Negro and leaders, promises to remove stores degrading racial signs. An agreement to all demonstrations moratorium was reached by the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth basing on these promises. However their promises were reneged since the signs were returned hence the resolution for direct action (King 32).

Our logic is appealed by Dr. King when he states the reasoning behind his statement, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” The reason given by King is that white moderate seems to show no sign of recognition of the fact that justice establishment is the principal purpose of the existence of law and order. Segregation is the cause of tension in the south and violence will erupt from the tension if it doesn’t resort to equality transition. He also says that the Negros is denied their human being worth and dignity by asking them to accept passively their segregation indignities. In another instant the reader is asked to perceive the presented facts which bring out the implicit logic. Dr. King makes this appeal when he quotes an elderly black woman who says, “My feets is tired but my soul is at rest.” The poor grammar of the statement is mentioned to indicate her lack of education. This is to show that the segregation and injustice is apparent even to the uneducated.


Dr. King also makes use of pathos to appeal to the emotions of the reader. The reader is not only invited to experience the action with Dr. King but also to feel as he did in his situation. King’s use of pathos is the most obvious in this section of the letter, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…” the clergymen are placed in the black man’s situation here by King in an attempt to make them grasp the situation in entirety. In an aim of establishing connection of the clergymen and the black persons who have been isolated by the clergymen, this passage incites sympathy, guilt, sadness and understanding. The barrier built by the white society is broken down by this connection. Blind ignorance to the absence of equality has been an obstacle to social growth is created by this barrier.

He describes with great detail an emotional situation of the police force preventing violence and being commended for it. In the letter this is one of the greatest pathos. Some of the actions taken by the police are first described by Dr. King such as freeing the dogs to the people and how the people were treated. His witnessing of the dogs sinking their teeth into nonviolent, unarmed Negroes is also described by him. King says that if the clergymen had witnessed how the Negroes were being treated in an inhumane and ugly manner then they wouldn’t be quick to commend the police. He further adds if they were to see the police kicking and pushing the Negro boys and old men or see the demonstrators being denied food just then they would not commend them.


In response to “Public statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is effectively structured, organized and implemented with elegance that addresses the concerns and accusations raised by the clergymen. He clarifies his status i.e. A spiritual leader and a learned person by using well chosen ethos of St. Aquinas, Jesus and Paul therefore puts him forth as a trustworthy person. Also being an African-American makes him the right person to participate in this event because he understands the situation properly. By use of logos he explains the reason behind the actions of the black persons of which the clergymen claim to be improper. He also makes use of pathos where he plays with the emotions of the readers to subdue opposition and create the connection between the clergymen and the black person therefore allows him to effectively bolster his vision for equality. An appeal for unity and peace concludes the letter.

Works Cited

King, Luther M. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. NewYork: Harpercollins, 1963.

Lacroix, Laurel., ed. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. 16 April. 1963. 22

March. 2010.


Ryley, Thomas. “Oratorical Encounters: Selected Studies and Sources of Twentieth-Century

Political Accusations and Apologies,” the Journal of American History 77.4 (1991): 1470-1471.