Of all the works composed in the epistolary genre, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is, perhaps, the best-known and the most inspiring one. Written by Martin Luther King, Jr. after he had been arrested for the march in Birmingham, the letter appeals directly to the clergy in an attempt to mend the rift created by disagreements and increasing discontent due to the need for action (Left and Utley 38). By combining ethos, pathos, and logos in a natural way, while also including kairos as the impetus for action, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” becomes a powerful speech supported by essential rhetorical tools.
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Considering the letter closer, one will recognize ethos as the most evident element of its rhetorical framework. Indeed, of all the authorities that Martin Luther King, Jr. could have selected to prove his point and encourage the clergy to reconcile, he points to the wisdom of Jesus Christ: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” (King par. 24). Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. mentions other Biblical figures as the authorities that confirm his idea of the direction in which the movement should be headed (Left and Utley 39). For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. mentions Paul as the example that the clergy should follow: “just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus” (King par. 3). As a result, the letter gains additional significance and weight. However, apart from the references to Biblical characters, King also mentions T.S. Eliot, one of the foundational figures of the movement of the rights of African American people: “As T. S. Eliot has said: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason’” (King par. 35). As a result, Martin Luther King, Jr. grounds the letter in the reality of the American social context, namely, its legacy of slavery and the dire situation that racism and segregation created.
Similarly, the use of pathos in the letter is quite prominent owing to the nature of its subject, as well as the genre itself. Specifically, while not being emotional to the point of manipulation., the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls to its audience’s feelings, particularly, the feeling of despair, and encourages the readers to restore their hope: “hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us” (King par. 7). Thus, King recognizes the emotions that his readers experience at the moment and acknowledges them, at the same time pointing to the fact that their way of coping with these emotions by using confrontations is unhealthy for them and detrimental for the movement. In turn, King offers a much healthier emotion of hope.
Another important tool that King uses in his speech, logos becomes evident once the letter connects the need to change the current stance of the clergy for the movement to become more effective. Namely, King mentions historical evidence to support his position, providing logical arguments and producing a convincing statement: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (King par. 11). However, pinpointing a particular statement that King makes in his letter as a direct example of logos is quite difficult since the entire work represents a single cohesive argument that conveys the importance of change. Moreover, even though Martin Luther King, Jr. is evidently passionate about the subject of his letter, he does not impose his vision of the movement on the clergymen; instead, he uses the power of reasoning as the main persuasion mechanism. As a result, in his letter, King encourages the readers to come to the right conclusion on their own, which makes the logos part of his rhetoric implied. As a result, the letter produced an even greater effect as the writing that allows its readers to make a conscious decision and choose between the right and wrong independently.
Finally, kairos is represented powerfully in the letter as the appeal to urgency. Specifically, the letter manages to address the right audience at the right time (Gallagher 523). By stating, “I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage,” King empowers the clergy to act (King par. 36). Since Martin Luther King, Jr. chooses a pivoting point in the movement when clergymen’s support would imply providing it with a massive impetus for further action, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” produces a tremendous impact.
Incorporating ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos in a natural and convincing manner, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” sounds as a compelling appeal to the reader’s common sense, emotions, and need for justice, therefore, encouraging them to act. The mixture of the rhetorical devices above adds relevance and urgency to the writing, thus, enabling the readers to make an immediate change. Therefore, the action that the letter suggests to take is geared not only outward as an impetus for social change, but also inward as the means of shaping the movement. As a result, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves its purpose of changing the direction of the clergy’s thinking impeccably.
Gallagher, John R. “Machine Time: Unifying Chronos and Kairos in an Era of Ubiquitous Technologies.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 2020, pp. 522-535.
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King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” University of Pennsylvania, 1963.
Leff, Michael C., and Ebony A. Utley. “Instrumental and Constitutive Rhetoric in Martin Luther King Jr.’s” Letter from Birmingham Jail”.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 7, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37-51.