The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was composed on April 16, 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his jail cell, during his brief incarceration. Dr. King’s letter was written as a direct response to an open letter [which criticized his activity]; signed by eight white clergymen and published in the Birmingham News. Further, Dr King’s indirect audience was the United States (U. S. ) White Moderate class. In his letter Dr. King made very effective use of the three rhetorical appeals: ethos, pathos, and the abundant use of logos in describing the Whites injustice to Blacks.
Dr. King use of ethos is indirect. Dr. King’s direct audience is that of religious and learned men, therefore ethos is established through the use of religious and intellectual codes. The codes are illustrated as follows: “…to my Christian and Jewish brothers” followed with references to the Apostle Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, the United States Supreme Court and St Augustine; the use of those code words established Dr. King as a religious, intellectual and highly educated man. He begins by justifying his presence in Birmingham.
He touches on the organizational ties between his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the invitation extended to him. This set the stage for the letter’s most power message. Using a court room metaphor he made most effective and frequently use of the logos appeal; particularly in disabusing his audience of the erroneous charge suggested that Dr. King was an outside agitator causing problems with local Blacks and the condescending so called “…unwise and poor timing…” of the Black protests.
He used logic and provided substantial evidence to clear him of this charge, with a highly effective closing argument that even if by some slim chance he were deemed an outside agitator; the point was moot. The outside agitator charge was made moot by Dr. King’s irrefutable logic that, “… if there is injustice located anywhere in the U. S. then no American [that ventured to that location] could be classified as an outside agitator. The effective use of the many pathos appeals is clearly illustrated by the following.
Dr. King closes his letter by admonishing the authors of the open letter for their praise of the police in “…keeping order…” and condemning the Black protestors for showing up and causing the local whites to become violent. Here is an age old fallacy of logic use most often by a ruling class; that if a victim [for whatever reason] becomes an attractive nuisance which provoke the perpetrator, then the victim is the culpable party. Other uses of pathos are founded in Dr. King’s closing responses directed at the individual clergymen with hopes that they will open their eyes to the true heroes of the time.
He expresses a hope to soon meet each of his correspondents as fellow clergymen and Christian brothers after the “dark clouds of racial prejudice were cleared. In closing, I believe Dr. King’s Letter should be on display in Washington, DC right next to our other historical documents; it is just as great [if not greater] a document as the Declaration of Independence. Dr. King’s letter [pen] proved mightier than the sword and was the final steps to Black American brief 40 years history of freedom in the U. S.
Jr. King, Martin Luther “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from the book The Reader. James C McDonald (Second Edition). Urbana: Pearson (2012): 164-173.