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.
Martin Luther King’s inspiration for writing his, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was mainly to appeal to an undeniable injustice that occurred during his time. His letter was in response tos eight white clergymen, who objected to King protesting in Birmingham. Dr. King effectively crafted his counterargument after analyzing the clergymen’s unjust proposals and then he was able to present his rebuttal. Dr. King effectively formed his counterargument by first directly addressing his audience, the clergymen and then using logos, pathos and egos to present his own perspective on his opponent’s statements.
The majority of the sentences in King’s letter can be connected to logos, pathos or ethos and his incorporation of appeals is masterful. On more than one occasion, King uses various strategies to appeal to his audience, in the letter he writes, “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.” In this excerpt, King presents his ethos very tactically. The Alabama clergy presents him as an outsider in the letter, but demonstrating his ethos, King presents himself as an insider. He is not just a man who chose to protest in an outside community, but is in fact the president of the Conference. He is a clergyman speaking to other clergymen, but also part of an organization that has a chapter in their state.
There were also other forms of ethos in his letter, King is sure to demonstrate his religious ethos by tracing his own heritage of ministerial ancestors and discussing his own church leadership. He also makes biblical references, comparing his struggle with the Apostle Paul and the prophets who spread their message to neighboring villages- similar to what King did for his people. He uses this connection to further justify his actions.
King makes references to examples throughout history that require a need for action. Some of his examples are well known such as Hitler while others were not as popular. This appeals to ethos because it demonstrates King’s palate for quality education, proving his credibility.
“I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil’”.
In this passage, King’s presentation of logos is genius. He effectively shows the clergymen two sides of the community, the one of complacency and the other of hatred and cynicism. In this excerpt he does not attempt to justify his motives, but rather puts facts on the table so that the audience could clearly see that his response was ideal. It is implied with this statement that King did not have to take control of the situation. He is basically saying that even if he had chosen to remain neutral, Black Nationalist groups would have took action regardless.
Another instance when Martin Luther King Jr. utilizes the tactic of directly addressing his audience to present his rebuttal is evident in the part of his letter beginning, “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? … Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling, for negotiation.” In this example, he also uses appeal to logic as the main backbone of his argument but occasionally intertwines pathos and clever word choice along with the logos. Dr. King first identifies a portion of his opponent’s argument and slowly picks it apart. He accomplishes this by focusing on the word “tension.” According to the text, through a comparison of violent tension, which is undesired, and nonviolent tension, which is constructive, he gradually establishes the concept that the ‘constructive, nonviolent tension’ will, “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” King uses unmatched word choice, such as “dark depths” and “majestic heights,” to accurately present his point of view.
He then continues with, “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” His statement not only uses logical reasoning to identify the necessity for negotiation, but also utilizes pathos to generate feelings of sympathy and remorse. The ‘tragic effort’ expresses how emotionally intense the past years have been for Negros and their inability to have a say in the ‘monologue’. The logical appeal is also present because he explicitly states the purpose of their direct-action program, which is to force an open door negotiation with both sides having power. Therefore, he is attempting to create the “dialogue” through use of logos but also incorporates word choice and pathos. Logos is present throughout King’s letter and this is expected since the letter is a justification of his actions. “I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings.
Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?” King connects his audience to his pathos by using several examples of the church as a source of pathos and making them them look closely at the symbolism of the church and the hatred that it aiding in promoting.
He forces the audience (through the rhetorical questions) to look at exactly what their white churches symbolize and the unsuitable manner in which they treated the African-Americans. Correspondingly, King makes them see the entire situation from his point of view. Through the use of specific rhetorical strategies such as logos, pathos, and ethos, Martin Luther King Jr. effectively contested the clergymen’s argument. His success was also due to his unique strategy of directly addressing his audience, the clergymen, to create the basis of his argument. From there, King is able to slowly pick apart and shatter his opponent’s claims. This effective method allowed King to present his rebuttal with more authority and conviction and thus achieve his goal: justify the reasons for nonviolent demonstrations against segregation.
King Jr., Martin L.Letter from a Birmingham Jail Fields of Reading 9th Edition. Nancy Comely, David Hamilton
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Invention and Design. Ed. Forrest D. Burt and E. Cleve Want. 4th ed.
Ali-Dinar, Ali B., ed. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” African Studies Center. University of Pennsylvania. 8 Sept. 2007 .
Biographical Outline of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‖ King Center. The King Estate, 2004. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.