“Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Where Reason Meets Emotions


The 20th century was marked by a range of social changes and challenges, yet the struggle for equality and the fight against oppression that the United States witnessed in the 1950-the 1960s was, perhaps, one of the most complicated challenges to be faced in addressing multicultural relationships (Colaiaco 68). Although the focus on the nonviolent resistance, which was emblematic of the movement, was often met with disdain, the specified way of resisting the oppression produced an impressive effect. Nevertheless, before the concept of nonviolent resistance toward discrimination was implanted into the societal environment of the United States of the 50s and the 60s, it had to be conveyed to the groups that Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), the founder of the movement, saw as potential supporters, the clergy is one of them.

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Thesis Statement

Although in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, convincing the clergy to make the choice that is legitimately the most sensible one, especially given the use of a cause-and-effect strategy, Martin Luther King, Jr. reinforces the impact of his message and makes it even stronger by incorporating the appeal to the target audience’s emotions.


The idea of placing a very powerful emphasis on the emotional aspect of the movement and the feelings that its supporters have might not seem like a welcome addition in any other political argument, yet it works in MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as both the ethos and the appeal to the audience’s reason. For instance, MLK mentions that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King). The specified statement can be seen from the perspective of both pathos, i.e., the call for unity as the emotional core and source of support, and logos, i.e., the legitimacy of the claim and the effect that unity will produce on the overall success of the struggle.

The focus on the emotional constituent of MLK’s speech is also present throughout the document. While MLK appeals to the voice of reason when addressing the clergy, he also incorporates very distinct elements of pathos into his speech, therefore, encouraging the readers to embrace the necessity to unite primarily as a spiritual goal (Sails-Dunbar 2). The specified characteristic of MLK’s speech creates a sense of urgency that prompts the necessity to act in his intended audience. Furthermore, the focus on the two aspects of the speech mentioned above serves as a powerful tool for convincing people to set their differences aside and join their forces in an endeavor to build a strong resistance to the opponents.

The propensity toward incorporating an emotional plight with a logical line of thinking can also be located in the general structure of the speech. Particularly, the cause-and-effect relationships in the statement made by MLK are also supported by the emotional weight of his argument. For instance, when reviewing the history of hurtful relationships between the African American community and the white American society, MLK stresses the painful and emotionally draining trials and tribulations which the African American community had to experience (Lucas 3). The specified description of historical experiences does not seem out of place in the general structure of the statement; quite the contrary, they serve as supporting facts in the letter, even though they are representative of the emotional turmoil in which the African American community was at the time.

Herein lies the brilliance of MLK’s approach toward writing the speech. Instead of separating the logical elements thereof from the emotional one, he blended the logos and the pathos of the speech into a single entity charged with an incredibly affecting social commentary and encouraging its readers to act. The voice of reason that can be heard in the speech is supported by the description of experiences faced by the African American community. Thus, while in any other situation, the attempt at encouraging people to alter the current social and political status quo by using an emotional appeal would have sounded hypocritical and contrived, it seems not only natural but also essential in MLK’s argument. MLK manages to introduce a historical context into his plight by exploring the experiences of the African American community and stressing the urgency of the matter (Naas 98). Seeing that the history of the struggle for independence and equality in American society is strongly connected with the reconsideration of personal values, the emotional weight of the speech turns out to be not only natural but also inevitable.

Thus, when reconsidering the careful balance between the pathos and logos in MLK’s speech, one must mention that the authors can sound natural and at the same time render the feelings that overwhelmed him and the rest of the African American community that made the speech so brilliant. It would have been extraordinarily easy to make the speech centered primarily around the audience’s emotions and pointing to the necessity to fight as a response to the hardships that they had experienced. Although the specified approach would also have warranted its existence because of the years of social injustice and inhumane treatment that the said community had experienced, it would not have had the impact that MLK’s speech produced due to the lack of focus on how these hardships affected each community member personally. The use of the emotional appeal, therefore, allowed creating the context in which the focus on the community integrity sounded very natural.

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One might argue, however, that, in his speech, MLK draws a very distinct line between the logical arguments that he offers for consideration and the emotional components that are supposed to appeal to the clergy and promote unity among the members of the movement. Indeed, the structure of MLK’s narration can be described as very distinct and clear. The specified characteristic is crucial for the argument that is as complex as the one that MLK conveys. Otherwise, the main idea would have been lost in the convoluted line of reasoning.

Indeed, when taking a first look at the structure of the narration, one might believe that there is a distinct line between the emotional claims that MLK uses to prove his point and the reasoning that he uses to support his call for unity across the entire movement. For instance, when seeking justification for the delays in taking the necessary actions, MLK renders the idea of following the traditions that have been set within the community: “Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement” (King). In the identified passage, MLK dissects the argumentation behind the choice of the movement members to avoid direct actions. By using a cause-and-effect logical structure in his arguments, MLK does not allow the emotional aspects of his speech to serve as the starting point for accusing the audience of inaction and passivity. In other words, because of the sensitive topic and the possibility of creating an environment in which the clergy could be easily targeted for its indecisiveness and unwillingness to support MLK in his choices, the speech needs to draw a line between the emotional and logical components of the argument.


However, even in the example provided above, it is rather difficult to disentangle logical concepts of the speech from the emotional ones. The specified cohesion between the logos and pathos does not make the speech inconsistent in the least; instead, it adds passion to it, thus, contributing to the impact of the message. The reason why the pathos does not work to the detriment of the speaker and, instead, serves as the impetus for introducing a positive change to the movement is that the emotional weight is not used as the means of blaming any party involved. As stressed above, it would have been very easy to accuse the clergy of failing to meet the ethical principles of the equality movement.

Indeed, the discord between the leaders of the movement in the face of the consistent oppression to which African American people were subjected in the U.S. of the 50s and 60s had dire effects on the success of the movement. Consequently, there was a possibility of losing the threat of the discussion (Marri 61). However, instead of avoiding the appeal to people’s emotions as a possible obstacle to proving his point, MLK skillfully incorporates the appeal to the emotions of his target audience to reinforce the power of his speech and ensure that every single member thereof views his message from not only political but also a personal perspective. Thus, the use of pathos in MLK’s speech makes the idea of unity as the means of fighting for equality, not simply a blank statement but a very relatable concept.


MLK’s speech addresses the issue of extraordinary political importance and conveys the idea of unity as a crucial tool in fighting for equality with the help of a combination of logical statements and the appeal to the target audience’s emotions. Thus, the author makes his speech especially powerful and convincing to not only the intended demographic but also to every single member of the African American community. Even decades after the speech was made, its emotional weight still affects numerous people and encourages integrity among the members of the African American community. Owing to the intricate and very clever structure of the argument that appeals to both people’s sensibility and their need to be supported and empathized with, the statement still retains its immense power.

The unique structure of the speech also contributes extensively to the overall strength of the argument and reinforces the effect that the combination of the components mentioned above produces on the intended audience. The cause-and-effect arrangement of facts stresses both the logical progression of the narrator’s thought and the rise in the tension within the African American community. As a result, the necessity for the specified conflict to be resolved and, thus, for the community to be united again is conveyed in a perfectly sensible way. Representing a perfect balance between reasoning and emotions, the speech retains its power of persuasion even nowadays, thus, serving as an inspiration for generations to come.

Works Cited

Colaiaco, James A. “Birmingham and the March on Washington, 1963.” Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence, Macmillan Press, 2016, pp. 54-77.

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Web.CN.Edu, Web.

Lucas, Carly Renee. “Prophetic Urgency: The 1963 James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. Warnings to America.” Symposia: The Journal of Religion, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Marri, Anand. “Connecting Diversity, Justice, and Democratic Citizenship: Lessons from an Alternative History Class.” Educating Democratic Citizens in Troubled Times: Qualitative Studies of Current Efforts, edited by Janet X. Bixby and Judith L. Pace, SUNY, 2014, pp. 58-80.

Naas, Michael. “Socrates in a Birmingham Jail: The Improbable Dialogue between Raphael Demos, Jacques Derrida, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Philosophical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3/4, 2016, pp. 90-101.

Sails-Dunbar, Tremaine T. “A Case Study Analysis of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Conceptualizing the Conscience of King through the Lens of Paulo Freire.” Pursuit – The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, vol. 8, no. 1, Article 14.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, June 1). “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Where Reason Meets Emotions. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/letter-from-birmingham-jail-where-reason-meets-emotions/

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StudyCorgi. "“Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Where Reason Meets Emotions." June 1, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/letter-from-birmingham-jail-where-reason-meets-emotions/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "“Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Where Reason Meets Emotions." June 1, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/letter-from-birmingham-jail-where-reason-meets-emotions/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) '“Letter from Birmingham Jail”: Where Reason Meets Emotions'. 1 June.

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