Rhetorical Analysis of the Letter from Birmingham Jail

On April 19, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter from Birmingham Jail in reply to eight white clergymen stating that there was racial segregation that should be righted, but that was a job for the courts to handle, not everyday people. King defended the idea that injustice is everywhere, not just in the courts. King made use of ethos, pathos and logos which are directed to have the attention of the audience. 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 at that time. King starts the letter with using the rhetorical appeal of ethos to establish his credibility on the subject of racial discrimination and injustice. Mr. King said “My Dear Fellow Clergymen”.

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By him saying this, he is trying to put himself on the same level as the clergymen, sending the tone that he is no less than them and they are no better than him. He then goes on by saying, “I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. He is telling the clergymen and the audience that he has credibility on the matter of injustice, not because he is the recipient of white privilege, but because he is well researched on the subject since he was a heavily activist at that time. He also uses the example about how Hitler killed many people and it was considered under the law “legal.” Hitler tortured people, tore apart families, destroyed towns in the name of “racial cleansing.” The law said it was perfectly fine, but morally that was very wrong.

Hitler and his Nazis killed over eleven million people, and only six million were Jews. Hitler targeted not only Jews, but also Gypsies, homosexual, physically and mentally disabled, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, and communists. Millions of these were children. No one was allowed to help any one of the groups out of a concentration camp or even out of the country. By comparing these two actions and the legality of both, I saw the logic of his argument. A law may be a law, but that does not mean it is right. This helps King’s letter be even more credible because of his use of logos in his illustration between Hitler and the relief organizations during the Holocaust. Martin Luther King Jr. then appeals to pathos by showing the trials that African Americans have gone through.

He does this by using the lines, “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”, and “when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters.” In these lines he is using descriptive language like “vicious mobs” and “lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” by using this kind of language King is making the audience and the American people feel what he had to see his friends and family go through in those hard times. Throughout the whole paragraph using this kind of rhetorical appeal and a lot of imagery the audience starts to feel what it would be like to be in King’s position and feel the pain and troubles he had to go through.

Another example of pathos would be when King said “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 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.

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Rhetorical Analysis of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. (2020, Nov 20). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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