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Letter from Birmingham Jail Essay

To defend against criticism is one thing, to convince the critic is another. The latter is far more challenging, though none could say with merit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a man unsuited for battling adversity. In 1963, King was jailed for marching without permit in the city of Birmingham. His detractors regarded his actions as, “unwise and untimely” (King 1), prompting the civil rights activist to respond with “Letter From Birmingham Jail”. In it, King utilizes the three classical appeals, biblical references, various forms of rhetoric, and a carefully selected tone to create a wonderfully worded piece that serves the purpose of arguing his side.

An argumentative piece is any writing that supports a specific set of opinions and beliefs. Often times, they utilize the three classical appeals in order to persuade the audience of said ideas. In the letter, King makes use of all three. For instance, he applies logos, the logical appeal, in the lines, “Several months ago the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference affiliates] here in Birmingham asked [me] to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program… So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here,” (King 1).

In order to justify his appearance in Birmingham, something called into question by his fellow clergymen, King presents basic logic. He was there because he was invited, an inarguable fact that grants him reason for presence and serves the point of urging others to accept his arrival in Birmingham as justified. That said, this fact would fall flat if King’s position was nothing outside a man in jail.

The second classical appeal is ethos, the ethical appeal. Most often, the ethical appeal builds up the author’s appearance, making them into a figure the audience believes worthy of listening to. Though few of the modern world would question King’s words, many of his contemporaries viewed him poorly. So, in order to convince these people of his position, he had to highlight his better qualities.

In expressing his genealogy as, “being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers,” (King 7), King successfully makes himself out to be a man who has a close connection to the church. This makes him a more valid figure to his audience, particularly because they are clergymen. As a valid figure, the audience is more likely to accept his words as true and reasonable, thereby increasing chances that they come to agree with his argument. That said, such would not occur if all King presented, as a valid figure or otherwise, was logic. A connection to the audience is just as vital as all else, after all.

The final classical appeal is pathos, the emotional appeal. It serves to make a link between the argument and the audience’s feelings, thereby impassioning the topic for them. King accomplishes this seamlessly by selecting the perfect medium for his audience of religious peoples. Emotionally charged biblical references strike out at King’s readers, grasping them by the heart and shoving them into compliance. This can be seen in the statement, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh!

How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists,” (King 7). King conjects that the people of the church have damaged it and, therefore, have damaged Christ himself. This statement would illicit an emotional response from any Christian, particularly feelings of horror and guilt. Because of this response, the readers are more likely to consider King’s opinions in order to avoid further damaging Christ and also to seek forgiveness for earlier infringements. Still, knowing both sides as reasonable is not always enough. To completely convince his readers, King had to discredit their own views.

Antithesis is an example of a rhetorical device, one that presents the opposing idea to the author’s thesis before pointing out its flaws. Of the many forms of rhetoric King uses, this one appears the most frequently and serves the largest role in supporting his purpose of convincing his fellows. In fact, it appears at the start of many of King’s body paragraphs, such as with the declaration, “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?”(King 5). An example of antithesis based on it and its following line’s examination of the critic’s opinion, this use of rhetoric allows for King’s audience to see the fault in their own argument. Furthermore, it allows for the clergymen to further consider King’s own position. Had this been done with ferocity, it would have elicited a horrendous response.

Fortunately, King presented a kind and patient tone throughout his letter. He expressed understanding for the clergymen’s views and approached convincing them gently. This can, arguably, be seen most evidently in the lines, “If I have said anything…that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me,” (King 9).

King does not approach with accusation, demanding that the clergymen apologize for their judgments. Instead, he offers apologies on his side just in case he happened to over step some line. This attitude is further displayed in the closing, which reads, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King Jr.,” (King 9). By expressing that he is interested in such positive relations in such a positive way, King is able to seal the deal, leaving his piece convincing enough to sway the most rigid of opponents.

King sets out in his letter to persuade his fellow church goers of his positions, to demonstrate that that his argument is the one that should be followed. He accomplishes this well by using some of the most effective literary tools for his audience, namely in the form of rhetorical devices, biblical references, classical appeals, and gentle tone. He started with the vast challenge of persuading his critics. In the end, he left his critics with the even more complex challenge of bringing themselves to further deny his opinion. If modern day is any indication, the majority failed miserably, if not for the betterment of society.


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