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Faith Palmer

English 1302
Pam Golden
March 28, 2015

Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Art of Rhetoric


One of the most prominent letters in history is Dr. Martin Luther Kings Letter from
Birmingham Jail. Dr. King uses the art of rhetoric throughout his letter intending to appeal to
the clergymen, as well as a general audience. To grasp the audiences attention, Dr. King uses the
rhetorical appeals ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos being the authors authority, logos the logical
appeal, and pathos the emotional appeal. Although addressing the clergymen in his letter, Dr.
King successfully addresses a more general audience with his use of the three rhetorical appeals.
The first appeal we see in Dr. Kings letter is ethos, as the first sentence reads My dear
fellow clergymen. (Dr. King, Letter form Birmingham, Pg. 1) By using the term fellow
clergymen, Dr. King is letting his audience know two things. One, he is letting his audience
know his position as a priest and leader and two, by using the term fellow, he is stating that they
are of equal status. HisIbecomesawe,andhislisteners,enlargedbythevisionofthe
speech,areliftedrhetoricallytohisside.(Osborn,RHETORICAL DISTANCE IN LETTER
FROM BIRMINGHAM JAILpg.23)Insteadofpresentingasaleader,Dr.Kingispresenting
asanequal.Tofurtherpresent,Dr. King uses religion to find common ground as he tries appeal
more to the clergymen.
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their
"thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as

the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to
the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel
of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to
the Macedonian call for aid. (Dr. King, pg. 1)
Dr. King is stating how he is following in the lords footsteps as he carries the gospel of freedom.
When stated like this, it is seen that his attempt appeal to the clergymen is successful. Besides the
clergymen, Dr. King also tries to appeal to a more general audience. We can see this more
through is use of ethos, logical evidence and reason.
The next appeal that can be seen, is logos, the logical appeal. Throughout his letter, Dr.
King keeps a consistent message with reasonable and logical evidence to support it. Never, it
should be noted, does King sound coy or appear to be using his patience and reasonableness as a
manipulative device; he manages to maintain that perfect balance between a commanding and
authoritative argument. (Klein, The Other Beauty of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from
Birmingham Jail", pg.31) King used As it can be seen in the following excerpt, Dr. King used
logic and reasoning to convey his point. In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and
direct action. (Dr. King, pg.1) his way of logic appealed to a more general audience. Religion
aside, Dr. King focused on the logical ways to get his point across in a clear and reasonable way.
As well as the logical ways to get his point across and appeal to his audience, Dr. King also
considered the emotional ways.
The final appeal that Dr. Martin Luther king uses is pathos, the emotional appeal. Dr.
King Our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. (Dr.
King, pg. 2) Dr. King wants to trigger the reader, causing them to sympathize and side with him.

He uses scenes of violence to grasp the readers attention and tug at their emotions. 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; (Dr. King, pg. 2-3)
In conclusion, It can be seen that Dr. King successfully used rhetoric as he managed to
address not only the clergymen, but a more general audience as well. With his prominent use of
the three rhetorical appeals, ethos, logos, and pathos, Dr. King was able to grasp the audiences
attention and pull them in. Each rhetorical appeal played a special roll in doing so as they came
together in this powerful, moving, letter.

Works Cited
Klein, Mia. "The Other Beauty of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail""
College Composition and Communication 32.1 (1981): 30-37. Web
King, Dr. Martin Luther. "Letter From A Birmingham Jail." Letter to The Clergymen. 16 Apr.
1963
Osborn, Michael. "Rhetorical Distance in "Letter from Birmingham Jail"."Rhetoric & Public
Affairs 7.1 (2004): 23-35. Web.