The Message of Martin Luther King Jr. in His Letter From Birmingham Jail

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has always been known to be an extremely influential individual. Where people where scared to talk, he talked. At a time where racism was immensely prevalent, voices needed be heard. People were killed, families separated, injustice committed. These gruesome activites are addressed by King, Jr. in his Letter to Birmingham Jail.

His letter directed to eight white clergy men who accused him of being an extremist. His essay spends time defending protests, and arguing against racism, and injustice in America. As one can imagine this is a very noble move of King to write such a robust letter to very powerful officials. His tone is immensely passionate addressing criticism from every angle. His smart use of rhetoric, and appealing to emotion however, demonstrate his knowledge of the situation.

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While the demands in his arguments are strong, his approach is more subtle.

King employs the use pathos, ethos, and logos in his letter. The strongest however is pathos. His appeal to emotion is a strong one, and can touch anyone reading it. The rhetorical strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates the power of appealing to emotion and reaching a wide range of audience despite adversity. Despite the huge adversity king risks with writing this essay, he takes a smart risk. King wastes no time in his essay.

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He lets the audience know exactly what he wants and what the point is of the essay from the start. He shows this by stating: “But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here" (204). King isn't in Birmingham jail for no reason, he is here on a mission. In this mission he wants to accomplish the adversity that is going on. Spefically, with racism and injustice. He makes this clear. He is not flirting around the point; he makes it extremely clear. He is here because of “injustice” (204).

The rhetorical strategy of the first quote is clear—to get to his point. In a way, this is like an eye-opener in the essay. It ignores any fluff, and goes directly to the problem at hand. This is an extremely smart move by King because he knows the clergy men reading it are not looking for his best interest. So if he catches their eye, it will only force them to keep reading. Martin Luther King, Jr. wants to make sure individuals know injustice affects everyone. He makes sure to be specific in the essay, but at the same time reach a broad audience. For example, he states forthrightly, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United Sates can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds” (204). In this quotation King demonstrates that injustice does not only effect African Americans, but the nation as a whole. This has to make any reader ponder what he is saying. Because if injustice is a threat for everyone, actions need to be made.

Obviously, changes can not be made with one letter, but it can make strides. This argument clearly appeals to logos. This is because, as a clergyman reading this, they have to question themselves and see if injustice effects the nation as a whole. King is not using ad hominem like lots of arguments do—he is merely reasoning with these individuals. Not only is this effective for persuasion, but in a sense, it makes the reader have more respect for King. He is not trying to belittle the audience, or demand any requests. He is only raising attention to the issue at hand, which is discretely demanding changes to be done. This quote does a great job of persuasion through logos. Because at the same time, he uses "never" a few times, to state that it cannot be this way anymore. Individuals who are united states citizens deserve to be treated the same way as everyone else. There is no aggressive tone through ought the quote. He is merely reasoning and trying to explain why citizens need to unite together to stop injustice. King recognizes the immense diversity happening with racism and injustice that it is hard to make an argument with just reason. As a result, he must appeal to emotion.

No matter how cruel, or heartless someone can be, everyone has emotion to some extent. Throuought the text there is a diverse amount of pathos. Doing so creates an emotional response with readers that can most definitely help an argument. For example, King states strongly, Perhaps it easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait’. But 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 millions Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your toungue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cant go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year old son who is asking, ‘Daddy why do white people treat colored people so mean?' (207).

This quote presents so strongly the pathos argument. This quote by King appeals to everyone. Despite the views of racism at the time, any normal human being can connect with this quote. Not necessarily understand it, but can see the sincerity in it. Because the letter all of a sudden move away from King's request, and brings in the key word family. He begins talking about mothers, and fathers, sisters, and brothers. He continues this by demonstrating the brutality and severe death of the people around him. The “twenty million Negro brothers” (207) stands out because it is such a large number. These are human beings, that are trapped in a cage like a bird. At some point, individuals have to see the problem of that. Especially for the fact that he is extremely detailed in his explanation. He does not leave out any details. He makes sure to show brutal imagery through the whole quote. The effect gets even more emotion when he seems to speak about children. A common theme when speaking about children is innocence. So, if an individual is reading the letter, it can touch the person's heart dramatically. Especially when he states, “tears welling up in her eyes when she is told funtown is closed to colored children” (207).

That is an extreme appeal to emotion. To the clergyman, regardless of how racist they are, that has to touch them on some level. Furthermore, he is relentless in his examples. He continues his example speaking about a five-year-old son questioning why white people are so rude to colored people (207). That messes up the child's life mentally. At this point, one can infer, that racism, and injustice, is not just about them anymore, it is about the children. Children shouldn't grow up suffering in their childhood as a result of disgusting racism. King's two robust examples appeal completely to emotion. Despite all the adversity going on, emotion can reach to everyone. This quote does a great job of appealing to a wide audience, and get the emotion flowing. King does a great job with detailed imagery, and pathos to reach the audience on a personal level. One cannot truly argue back with his quote because of how powerful and stunning it is. Anytime an individual brings up family, it can reach one's heart.

Everyone has a family, and for the most part the idea of a family is very dear to one's heart. For example, assuming some of the clergy men addressed are parents themselves, they can see how disturbing his analysis of the responses to children can be. The quote purposely has nothing left out to show the gruesome nature of every single word. The appeal to emotion is immensely robust as here as it highlights the troublesome nature of injustice and racism at the time. The diction and imagery are mournful and powerful. Word for word, sentence for sentence the tone of emotion can touch any people's heart dearly. Reading this personally, I feel guilt. That is truly how powerful it is. King maintains his pathos, ethos, and logos through the whole essay, especially the ending as well. This is shown when he states, “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergy man and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog off misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty” (219).

This quotation demonstrates King's sincerity and respect. Through the whole essay he is demonstrating demands, but at the same time is respectful about it. He maintains the respect from the beginning to the very end, which truly demonstrates his respect for others, even people like that. Ultimately, King does a great job through his whole essay. It is perfectly worded, and presents great lessons for just about any individual. He demonstrates pathos, ethos, and logos very well. He maintains respect consistently in the essay. Through his detail, and respect he maintains a great image for himself while demanding for change. His appeal for emotion helps generate attraction for a wide range of an audience.

The use of emotion specifically is King's strongest trait as he can target any type of audience despite adversity. The use of emotion through the essay is very effective because readers can relate to it. Not only is Martin Luther King's Essay powerful, but it is extremely moving. The essay inspired me, and demonstrates to me the type of actions needed to be made for changes in the world. Thanks to individuals like King, the world makes strides for the better. His bravery and inspiration not only leads to powerful changes, but touches people's hearts everywhere.

Works Cited

  1. Jr., King, Luther, Martin. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” ?”. 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Samuel S Cohen. 4th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013. 203-219. Print.
Updated: Mar 11, 2022
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The Message of Martin Luther King Jr. in His Letter From Birmingham Jail. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

The Message of Martin Luther King Jr. in His Letter From Birmingham Jail essay
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