In his well-known Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King defends the approach of nonviolent resistance to racism, responding to numerous accusations he was subject to. In particular, he responds to the critical attacks of the “Call for Unity” clergymen who deemed the actions of protesters to be unwise and called for the fight against injustice and racism to be reserved to courts. The major argument of the author is that nonviolent actions, such as marches and sit-ins, are the only way to make the white power structures negotiate with the racial minority, because they are unwilling to do so otherwise.
He also claims that people in Birmingham had no other choice rather than to protest because the overwhelming white dominance deprived them of the opportunity to defend their rights in courts. Another important claim made by Martin Luther King is that unjust laws have to be opposed as they are not consistent with the superior law of God and moral law. Letter from Birmingham Jail demonstrates a well-grounded argument that is proven with broad evidence and appeals to logos, ethos and, to a lesser extent, pathos.
It is important to understand the larger context beyond the analyzed text. The Letter was written after Birmingham Campaign in 1963, which involved marches and sit-ins against racial segregation. Though the Circuit Judge prohibited the demonstration, the protestors disobeyed his ruling. A few days after the Campaign, King was harshly arrested and put in the jail, where the conditions were hardly tolerable. There, he received a newspaper with a letter from white Alabama clergymen who condemned his strategy. While King did not often responded to criticism, as he reveals in the text, in this situation he felt it necessary to defend his way and provide explanation of his actions for those who were opposed to them.
It is remarkable that Martin Luther King primarily appeals to logos by thoroughly demonstrating the background and the reasoning behind the Birmingham Campaign. First, he provides the evidence of Birmingham people suffering from enormous segregation and injustice. He then states that the city leaders broke the promises that had given to the community so that they did not deserve any trust and the action could not be delayed any longer. He interacts with his audience by anticipating their concerns: “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” (157). King totally agrees with the audience in this point, but he emphasizes that the power structures of the city refused to negotiate, so it was not possible to choose this way. The author also logically demonstrates why the protesters were unwilling to wait for the new city administration to act, saying that the new mayor will be likely to maintain the status quo, without any major changes for the oppressed. Finally, he appeals to the general knowledge of the African American community that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor”, and thus “it must be demanded by the oppressed” (158). Therefore, by referring to facts and to general knowledge, the author consistently proves that nonviolent action was the only viable alternative for the protestors and reveals the futility of other potential strategies.
Martin Luther King reinforces the credibility of his message by using ethical appeal. When explaining the difference between just laws, which are compatible with the moral and the Divine law, and unjust laws, which run counter to it, he refers to the authority of prominent theologians and philosophers, such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Buber. Moreover, King compares himself to Apostle Paul, who carried the Gospel of Jesus Christ to distant corners, just as the author carries the gospel of freedom much beyond his hometown. In another remarkable comparison, he says that Greek philosopher Socrates felt it necessary to arouse tension in the minds of people, just as protesters create tension in the society “that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (157). The appeals to all these famous and respectful personalities help the author to make his argumentation more trustworthy and thus more convincing.
Defending his position, the author also appeals to pathos as additional tool of persuasion. He relates the deplorable and “painful experience” (158) of the Black population in the US that has been always told to wait. King provides an extremely emotional passage, which is certain to provoke sympathy from the audience: “…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 N. brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society […] then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (158-159). Throughout this passage, the author uses specific examples and very emotional adjectives to make the audience visualize the situations that African Americans have been through in their life. It should be noted, though, that the author does not use pathos extensively, trying to keep the text rational, consistent and based on reasoning.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King primarily relies on logos and ethos to convince the audience, while he also makes use of pathos in a few passages. To demonstrate the readers that nonviolent action is the only way of resistance available to the people of Birmingham, he cites many facts that testify to the administration’s unwillingness to negotiate. Throughout the Letter, King interacts with the audience, poses rhetorical questions and makes unusual comparisons to provoke the readers to think deeply over the issues in question. The effective use of diverse rhetorical instruments makes the Letters from the Birmingham Jail highly convincing and touching for the readers.