Questions in Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

  1. King’s Use Of Logos Or Logical Appeal

Dr. King’s use of logos can be seen in almost every sentence he made. Dr. King uses logos as an appeal throughout his letter. Through the use of logos, Dr. King was able to conjure a cognitive and coherent reaction in his readers.He was also able to give his arguments strength and irrefutability. Through logos, he states facts that cannot be argued, and that which can be accepted by all as true. The use of logos allows him to be viewed as reputable and respectable while he presents his argument for the civil rights movement.Here are a few excerpts that show his use of logos:

‘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, August, 1963)

Here King provides a logical step by step analysis of any social activist campaign, which is not just confined to the civil rights arena.

‘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 … so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own home town.’ (Dr. King, August, 1963)

In this statement, King makes use of a well reasoned argument that would hold weight with the original target audience, that is, the other clergy members.

  1. Letter’s Intended Audience

Although the letter was composed and directed at the eight clergymen who had condemned and reproved the timing of the demonstrations of the civil rights movement, the Dr. King’s letter was meant to reach out to a national audience, especially Dr. King’s Christian and Jewish brothers. His peaceful but firm letter served as a remarkably persuasive voice to an immensely chaotic mess, and can be viewed as a major turning point in the civil rights movement.

  1. King’s Use Of Allusions

Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a place or thing or person of cultural, political, historical or literary importance. It does not describe in detail the person but expects the readers to possess the knowledge to grasp its importance.

Dr. King makes full use of his knowledge of allusion in writing the letter. While each allusion goes to achieve a specific goal in the context of the argument in which it is used, when they are taken as one, they underline important aspects of his letter. His use of allusion reinforces the impeachability of many of his urgings. Byaddressing the content of the letter to peoples from so many backgrounds, and his using of their most feted and admired figures to reinforce his arguments, Dr. King makes it knotty for any individual to perceive the inclusive argument as unconnected from him or his own cultural milieu and background

  1. Distinction Between Just And Unjust Laws

Dr. Kingpostulates that justicesustains the dignity of the human spirit, whereas injustice works in opposition to it. Through discussing the dissimilarity between just and unjust laws in both general and philosophical terms, he establishes a criterion by which to obliquely condemn both segregation and silence in the face of it. With regards to the latter attack, he in the end intimates that the man, who sees injustice and does nothing to stop it, is acting unjustly as well. Succeeding this notion, he posits that laws must be infused with a moral sense so as to be just. That is,morality and law cannot be distinguished as separate pursuits or areas.

  1. Two Sections: The “Diplomat” And “Prophet” Sections

At the beginning of his letter, Dr. King plays a “diplomat”, trying to reach a specific end through the use of polite and restrained means. His expectation is that he will defend himself against the white moderates and the clergymen, and at the same time will also persuade them to buoy his cause. Fully aware that their qualms and anxieties would incline them to hesitation on his call to action, Dr. King submits the call through the use of rational arguments and pathos. However, as the arguments progress, his attacks become more and more direct, repositioning him into a kind of “prophet” who no longer contends that he desires the support of his audience. Despite the fact that he obviously needs it, Dr. King is well-found in his allegiance to justice and confident that his cause would succeed because of that steadfastness.

By the end of the letter, Dr. King is no longer arguing, but declaring that change would come, and that the audience should unite with him and join his cause, not because they need it, but so as not to later regret over their pusillanimity and sinfulness.

  1. One Statement That Each Spiritual Leader Wrote That Would Support King’s Position.

St. Augustine: “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?

St. Thomas Aquinas: “…he who acts against his conscience always sins

King made use of these two as reference because they held the similar viewpoints on justice and injustice to his. Referring to their already established and well-known wisdom, he brings some credibility to his position.

  1. Analysis Of King’s Use Of “Concession”

Martin Lutherking makes use of a concession in several of his sentences. For example in the statement:

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us to consciously break laws. One may well ask: “how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”(Dr. King, August, 1963)

  1. King’s Use Of Metaphor

Heemploys the use of metaphors and antithesis to create an all or nothing pathos appeal as well as allusion to link a sense of patriotism to his argument. King makes use of metaphors in the antithesis to create an all or nothing pathos appeal to link a sense of patriotism to his arguments, this is especially so in the second sentence.

For example, in paragraph three he says:“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”(Dr. King, August, 1963) Using the metaphor within, he creates an all or nothing statement.

He does this again in paragraph six. Here he says, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”(Dr. King, August, 1963)

He also includes metaphors in statements like: “Jet like speed” indicating that Asia and Africa are at a very fast and quick way improving their nations; and “Horse-and-buggy pace” indicating that America is improving at a very snail and slow pace. Dr. King uses metaphors to spell out the distinction and disparity in both statements and the antithesis makes it concrete.

  1. Role Of “Pity” In The Letter

In the letter, the feeling of pity is achieved through the use of pathos which comes out in the quality or power in an actual life experience.Through the use of pity, Dr. King stirs up emotional appeal of the audience with sympathy and sorrow, and it works as an important tool of persuasion in his arguments. He is able to convince people with an argument drawn out through an emotional response. Pity, an emotional appeal connects to audiences’ emotions such as love, nostalgia, hatred, patriotism. The use of pity also reinforces logical arguments and enhances effectiveness.

“I guess it is 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, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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 Fun town is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality…”(Dr. King, August, 1963)



Dr. King, M. L. (August, 1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Alabama.

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