Rhetorical Analysis of King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Martin Luther King Jr. was a renowned civil rights movement activist who wanted equal rights for African Americans. According to King Jr. (1992), the letter was Martin Luther’s response to the eight Alabama clergymen who condemned him for using nonviolent civil disobedience. The response letter by King Jr. reflected the great oratorical and motivational skills he portrayed in his letter to the people. According to Cooke (2016), King Jr. was in Birmingham jail following his protests against desegregation. This aspect points to King Jr.’s devotion to fighting racism leveled against African Americans in the United States. King Jr. (1992) points out that white clergymen asserted that King Jr.’s demonstrations or protests were “unwise and untimely.” They wanted racial issues to be pushed through the courts. King Jr.’s response was akin to providing a better argument to support his position and the criticisms that were leveled against him. Therefore, King Jr.’s letter uses ethos and logos as his rhetorical strategies to persuade his audience.

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Ethos in King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

King Jr. used ethos to show his credibility, which was appealing to his audience. According to Fulkerson (1979), ethos is a rhetoric strategy and appeal that a speaker uses to point to their status and authority for the audience to trust them. King Jr.’s letter states, “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights” (King Jr., 1963). From the quote, King Jr. portrays himself as a credible and reliable person who knows what he is fighting for and doing to be trusted with such a position. In this way, his leadership skills make the audience view him as trustworthy. King Jr. uses the first four paragraphs to build his ethos, showing his qualifications and need to speak against the clergymen’s criticisms. With the credibility achieved, the audience knows who is before them and would have to trust him.

Through the speech, King Jr. is keen on equating himself to historical and legendary figures to appeal to the audience that he upholds and has the same qualities. He portrays ethos as a rhetoric strategy by talking about Paul, Jesus, and John, pointing to persuading the audience that he bears the same credibility. King Jr. uses a philosophical figure, Socrates, to build on his reasoning over the matter. He states, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal….” (King Jr., 1963). From the quote, King Jr. adds to his credibility and reasonableness with the use of direct action in which he defends his actions and the organization’s use of nonviolent approaches.

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Logos in King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

Another rhetorical device that King Jr. uses in his letter is logos. According to Fulkerson (1979), logos is used by a speaker for logical reasoning to persuade the audience by stating facts and historical events. Based on King Jr.’s letter, logical statements have been used to portray him as factual by citing various aspects. For instance, King Jr. provides logical reasoning to distinguish between just and unjust laws, with a backing of a historical figure. He states, “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all” (King Jr., 1963). The backing of the unjust laws with St. Augustine’s assertions convinces the audience allowing King Jr. to persuade them to agree with his position.

King Jr. also uses statistics to make a logical argument to warrant the use of his approach. He states, “We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights” (King Jr., 1963). By presenting the actual number of years as statistics, King Jr. makes a clear sense of his logic and statistics that refutes or contends with clergymen’s criticisms for the lack of change regarding the African Americans or black community. In this way, King Jr. is making a logical argument that persuades the audience to evaluate the existing situation of the matter and the facts or statistics presented, which is convincing.

Conclusion

King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail used various rhetorical devices to persuade or convince the audience of his stand regarding the black community or African Americans. It is one of the most effective letters that were appealing and influential in the history of the United States. King Jr. used ethos to persuade his audience of the credibility and authority he bears on the matter for the people to believe him. Through ethos, the audience is convinced beyond unreasonable doubt that King Jr. is right in his defense or counter against the clergymen. King Jr. used logos to persuade his audience by presenting logical statements and reasoning backed up by facts, statistics, and historical accounts.

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  1. Cooke, T. (2016). Martin Luther King Jr. Gareth Stevens Publishing LLLP.
  2. Fulkerson, R. P. (1979). The public letter as a rhetorical form: Structure, logic, and style in King’s “Letter from Birmingham jail”. Quarterly Journal of Speech65(2), 121-136.
  3. King Jr, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. California State University, Chico. https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf
  4. King Jr, M. L. (1992). Letter from Birmingham jail. UC Davis L. Rev.26, 835: 1-20.
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