Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
Maybe it was all the preachin'. Maybe it was all the schoolin'. Whatever it was, Dr. King knew how to rhetoric the you-know-what out of speeches. There's a little bit of everything in "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Dr. King makes an appeal to his readers' hearts and heads while alluding to the moral authority of the Christian tradition, American ideals, and the collective suffering of the African American community.
Let's check out each one more closely.
Aside from introducing himself as the president of the SCLC, Dr. King doesn't use ethos explicitly. He doesn't claim to be the foremost authority on Jesus or the greatest political strategist of all time, for instance. But his ethical standing is implied by the way he frames his argument and stakes his claim on a moral truth higher than local laws and ordinances. He out-Christians his Christian critics. He takes America's highest cultural ideals seriously.
He also references a dozen historical heavyweights, from Abraham Lincoln (24), to Paul of Tarsus (3, 24), to Socrates (9, 17, 21), to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (17) (they don't make names like they used to), arguing that he and his followers are in this lineage of freedom fighters, countercultural visionaries, and righteous sufferers of persecution. Talk about the ethical high ground.
He also acknowledges the sincerity and status of the clergymen who wrote the letter he's responding to, respecting their credibility as men of good will who are all knowledgeable about Bible teachings.
Although many of Dr. King's other speeches and works were specifically anchored on appeals to emotion and inspiration, the major moments of pathos in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" come in the parts about the suffering of the African American community. In order for MLK's argument to make sense, you have to understand why the situation is unjust. So he gives a vivid picture of what Black Americans have to go through in the segregated South.
…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't 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 that 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?" (12)
This bit really gets to the heart of any parent—or anyone who loves children, really. By giving this kind of example, Dr. King is allowing white people a highly relatable glimpse into the pain of the Black community.
Likewise, he goes on to offer a glimpse into the way the criminal justice system treated African Americans:
I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. (34)
Nowadays, because cellphone cameras are everywhere and social media is so popular and accessible, a lot of police misconduct has come to the public's attention. Back in the 1960s, the only recourse victims of police brutality had was to get their accounts published in the newspaper or tell someone important. Dr. King had to use his platform to set the record straight. He might have been hoping that whites would read his accounts and imagine if the word "Negro" had been left out. It could have been their mothers, daughters, and grandfathers.
Even though he uses a lot of what we might call "painful pathos," there are also the signature rhetorical flourishes Dr. King was famous for, reminding us of the beautiful possibilities for America's future. For example:
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny (34).
This passage is as much directed at his followers and fellow-travelers as it is to whites who are on the fence or unaware of what was going on. He has to temper the ugliness of the situation with at least a few moments of unabashed righteousness and monumental calls to hope.
He closes the letter on this kind of inspirational note, showing again that the preacher might leave the pulpit, but the pulpit doesn't leave the preacher…or something like that. He couldn't ever resist a majestic metaphor or two.
Let us all hope 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, 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. (39)
You can almost see those stars now…scintillating…
When it comes right down to it, this text makes a seriously devastating logical argument. It deals with the facts of the situation in a way his critics fail to do. It details the local political situation and the ramifications of the recent elections. It explains in detail why non-violent disobedience is the ideal way to proceed. It refutes each element of the argument put forward by the eight white clergymen, one by one.
One of Dr. King's basic arguments in the "Letter" is that just laws should be followed, and unjust laws should be openly and deliberately disobeyed. But in order to win people over to this simple idea, he needs to do more than engage his readers' emotions. So he writes almost like a lawyer for a stretch, defining just and unjust laws from a couple different angles.
Take this paragraph, for example:
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. 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. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? (14)
Hard to refute, right? This is a very precise definition of just vs. unjust laws, and in case it went over anyone's head, it's underscored by the obvious point about Black Americans being denied the vote. Even if a reader didn't quite get the point he's making here about "sameness" and "difference made legal," they surely understood the point about democracy.
Even though Dr. King is best remembered for his sonorous voice, towering metaphors, and rousing emotional appeals, inside every speech, sermon, and letter of his is a thoughtful, logical argument.
At the peak of the Civil War Movement in America on April 12th, 1963, eight Alabama clergymen made a public statement announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King’s protests in the streets should end because they promote “hatred and violence” (par. 5). The clergymen condemn using nonviolent disobedience to obtain civil rights for the black people in Birmingham and believe that if whites and blacks come together to discuss this issue, there will be a better outcome for everyone. They also believed that Dr. King was just an “outsider” who wanted to stir up trouble in Birmingham (par. 3). During the time that the clergymen released their statement, Dr. Martin Luther King was in a Birmingham jail; arrested for protesting. While in his cell, Dr. King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to inform the clergymen that he had a right to be in Birmingham and there are moral, just, and deserving reasons behind his actions. He uses rhetorical devices to persuade not only them, but the rest of the American people through the use of ethos (credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (reason). By using these various devices, Dr. King is able to effectively convey his letter to his audience and gain the support needed for the Civil War Movement.
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