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Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Speech

Cause and Effect in MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King’s (MLK) “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains one of the most profound and poignant speeches ever produced. Addressing the contempt that the members of the clergy had for MLK’s endeavor at promoting the idea of nonviolent resistance, the letter is a perfect specimen of efficient use of cause and effect. With its flowing structure and a coherent line of reasoning, the speech sets a very distinct premise for the message that it tries to convey, and MLK supports his statement with several examples of a cause-and-effect relationship.

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The connection between the actions taken by MLK and the outcomes that could be observed in the relationship toward the African American community at the time is, perhaps, the most prominent example of cause-and-effect reasoning in the speech. For example, MLK stated explicitly that the African American population had been suffering for 340 years to gain basic human rights, to which they had to be entitled based on the Constitution (King 2). Thus, the narrator sets the tone for his story, explaining that the rebellious nature of the African American movement was caused by something greater than a simple discontent. Consequently, the cause of the conflict within American society is defined.

Ethos and Pathos in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”


The pathos of the speech becomes apparent as the appeal to justice starts to shine through in it. The emphasis on the moral obligation to obliterate the hideous phenomena of segregation and racism builds the pathos of the narrative, thus, compelling the audience to take immediate actions, particularly, to recognize the necessity to unite and protest. For example, MLK expressing the desire to fight against all the odds can be regarded as the manifestation of pathos in his letter: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham” (King 1). By stating that he empathizes with every single individual that has been affected by the miscarriage of justice in the American system of the tie, MLK makes his speech emotionally overwhelming and, therefore, generates pathos in it.


As the leader of the movement, MLK doubtlessly adds a significant amount of ethos to his argument. The speech, which is centered around the idea of religion being the essential building block for creating unity among the members of the movement, relies heavily on the influence that MLK had. The passages such as the following one indicate the presence of ethos that serves as the foundation for building a very powerful statement regarding the necessity to promote unity and expand the movement: “I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia” (King 1).

In the specified excerpt, MLK states explicitly that he has the authority to demand change in the way in which the community operates. Specifically, as the church leader, MLK persuades his audience to focus on the importance of making a statement outside of their traditional environment and engage a wider range of people into the movement. To incorporate an even greater amount of weight into his speech, MLK mentions historical figures such as Socrates: “To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience” (King 3). Consequently, the speech gains the weight required to appeal to the target audience and, thus, unify the community in its fight against social injustice.

Audience and Purpose

Purpose of the Speech

The speech is targeted at the clergy, who was at the time very displeased with MLK’s endeavor at expanding the movement and encouraging change in the environment of Birmingham as opposed to the area where the movement was started. Therefore, the goal of the argument that MLK created was to introduce the clergy, as well as every other member of the movement and the African American population, in general, to the idea of rising against the pressure of racial discrimination and social injustice (King 1). MLK urged his followers, proponents, and supporters to shake off the shackles of social contempt and ostracism, thus, learning to fend for themselves and fight for their freedoms and rights.

Ethos, Pathos, Logos, and Their Impact on the Audience

All of the three elements are used impeccably to convey the key message to the target audience. MLK uses the weight of his authority as a minister to encourage the clergy to reconsider their attitude toward the expansion of the movement to Birmingham, as well as their overall perception of a nonviolent protest. In addition, the pathos that MLK uses in his argument helps the audience to relate to his plight emotionally. As a result, a connection between the audience and the author is created. Furthermore, the logos of the narrative helps create a sense of importance and urgency to prompt further actions from all those concerned. The speech affects its target audience directly, convincing them to take action and abandon the prejudices that prevent them from uniting and resisting the attacks of their opponents.

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Arrangement in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

5 Moves of a Classical Argument

As a rule, the deconstruction of texts involves the identification of five typical components, which are the introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and summation. However, when it comes to analyzing MLK’s speech, one must admit that it does not fit into the traditional mold for narratives, mainly because of the agenda that it pursues. The urgency of the message implies the necessity to break the traditional structure of the text to shave a greater impact on the audience. Nevertheless, traces of the traditional constituents of an argument can be located. For instance, the first paragraph in which MLK states the purpose is the introduction to his further argument. The narration starts at the point when MLK discusses the concept of a nonviolent campaign, whereas the confirmation and the subsequent refutation can be located in the parts where MLK talks about the anxiety that has been forming in the movement and his disappointment in the direction that the movement was taking (King 3). Finally, MLK concludes his argument with a profound commentary about the value of truth.

Moves and the Text Purpose

The moves mentioned above have a direct connection to the purpose of the narrative since they support King’s concern. They create the unsettling feeling of a threat to the community and the movement unless proper actions are taken. Thus, the speech convinces its audience that all members of the movement must unite for the sake of the common cause.

Confirmation and Refutation

MLK uses confirmation and refutation as narrative tools in a very efficient manner. At first, his argument seems to veer off the topic as he mentions the possible obstacles and challenges that the movement is bound to face. Particularly, he claims that the lack of motivation among its members disappoints him. However, afterward, he makes a very strong claim that serves as a refutation of his concerns and, thus, promotes the further development of unity among the members of the movement by referencing the church as the source of spiritual growth. Thus, MLK concludes his speech on a very moving and emotional note, leaving his audience to embrace the gravity of his statement.

Work Cited

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

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