Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Martin Luther King

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written to the fellow clergymen on 16 April 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. justifies to the clergymen the non-violent movement of the Negro for their human and civil rights. He uses most effectively the art of rhetoric as taught by Aristotle – the ethos, the pathos and the logos. In this manifesto of Negro revolution Luther King has developed an ethos – a convincing and a credible personality which makes his letter acceptable to the larger communities of “moderate white” who also seeks the liberation of his community, but are not willing to disturb and disrupt societal life.

He uses pathos to stir the emotions of his readers about the genuine need for such non-violent protests without which the Negro cannot hope to counteract the racial discrimination. But he is most successful in using persuasive argument or the power of logos to convince his readers about the truth and propriety of their movement. He has proved beyond doubt that the present activities of protests are neither “unwise” nor “untimely”.

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The sincerity, devotion and belief in non-violence make Martin Luther King comparable with Mahatma Gandhi of India who inspired him.

He replies to the criticism with due respect and suavity which makes him a noble enemy even to his detractors. Accepting his critic’s “criticisms are sincerely set forth” he patiently elaborates why his action is not “unwisely and untimely” (Letter. 1) He also politely refutes the argument of “outsiders coming in” by reminding that Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights is one of the 85 affiliated organizations.

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By using Aristotelian ethos he persuades his fellow white men that the non-violent direct action program in Birmingham is a cry against injustice and therefore commendable.

Luther King has also referred to many instances of oppression and torture of the Negro which evoke the sympathy of the readers. His rhetorical technique is the Aristotelian pathos. He points out how “racial injustice engulfs this community. ” (Letter. 2) and forces them to resort to demonstration. He cites the examples of atrocities on the Negro such as “grossly unjust treatment in the courts” and the “unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham”(Letters. 3). Nevertheless the city fathers of white community have refused to engage in negotiation with their representatives.

He also writes about various signs of racial discrimination on different stores which have not been removed despite protests. He rouses sympathy by citing the real life horrible incidents of “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;” and “ hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters. ”( Letter. 6) He talks about the motels which do not allow colored people to stay because of signs of “nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’;” (Letter. ) He also argues against the advice of “wait” because for centuries it has not produced any result. Luther king’s strongest point is his use of logos. The sheer force of his logic not only persuades the Negro, but also influences the rational whites who can distinguish between the just laws and unjust laws. He advices his followers to obey the just laws for smooth running of society, but defy the unjust laws which is out of harmony with moral laws. He defines unjust law as “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. ” (Letter. 7) He lashes out as those overt and covert laws which do not allow the blacks of Alabama to register as voters. Such apartheid existed in South Africa where the white minority oppressed the black majority. But as a result of Nelson Mandela’s revolution the black won victory against racial discrimination. So he asserts: “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. (Letter. 8) With incisive and cool logic he defends civil disobedience and says: “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to rouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. ” (Letter. 9) He cites the historical examples of Hitler and the Communists who tortured people with their unjust laws, but condemned the protests of the Hungarian people as “illegal”.

Moreover, he blames the white moderates who approve of their goal but criticizes their means. He does not buy the argument that those who participate in direct non-violent action are responsible for social tension. Such argument is as fallacious as blaming the robbed because his wealth tempted the robbers to rob. He disparages the appalling silence of the white brothers in Texas who think they are in a great “religious hurry”. He also does not also conceal his disappointment with the Church.

He ends his rhetoric with an optimistic note that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities,” (Letter. 23) and true love and equality would prevail on humanity. Luther King has driven home the truth uttered also by other thinkers. Frederick Douglass said, “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the Black man’s misery. ” (The North Star) And according to George Moore, “After all, there is but one race – humanity. ” (The Bending of the Bough).

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Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Martin Luther King. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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