After the Birmingham, Alabama newspaper published “The Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” calling Martin Luther King Jr.’s activities “unwise and untimely,” King wrote a response back from jail arguing each point the clergymen had made in their “Public Statement.” In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King points out that he is not an outsider since the people of Birmingham invited him and that since they are all within the United States, nobody should be even considered an outsider. Being a fighter of injustice, King says, he sought to negotiate with the white community of Birmingham, but they refused to comply. Then, he illustrates to them that the tension amongst the groups is many times good because it leads to action and negotiation. He further explains that calling the actions of Negroes “unwise and untimely” is denying them justice, which they have been waiting for too long. Moreover, King explains that laws can be just and unjust, and that he will only obey just laws that agree with the moral code
and disobey laws that do not unlike the white churches, which permit prejudice and hate even though they should preach brotherhood and love. Lastly, King points out that Negroes will win their freedom in the end because it is their right and God’s will.
To argue his points in the “Letter” King uses each of the three rhetorical appeals
: ethos, pathos, and logos. In this essay, I will try to prove that one appeal is more effective than the rest, but first in order to help one understand what these appeals mean, I will use Arthur Quinn’s definitions of what the three appeals entail. The first appeal, the ethos, tries to persuade an audience to agree with an argument by using the reputation and character of the speaker or writer. For instance, a well-liked political leader
might hold a strong ethos in the eyes of his constituents, and therefore his opinions on issues might convince his constituents to hold the same opinions whether or not they know anything about the issue. In contrast, the pathos appeal attempts to persuade an audience by targeting their emotions in attempt to gain their sympathy for the argument. An example of this appeal can be seen in TV commercials fundraising money for impoverished children. The final appeal, the logos, attempts to persuade an audience using logic and good reasoning. The logos appeal argues its point by using a common ground that both the audience and the arguer can agree on. From these three appeals, I felt that King uses the logos appeal most effectively in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” because it is used most frequently by King, because the logic and evidence behind the arguments makes it more persuasive, and because it directly criticizes the points the clergymen made in their “Public Statement.”
First, I feel the logos appeal is used most effectively because King uses it most frequently in the “Letter.” Most of the arguments King makes use an intellectual understanding to prove them, which is the logos appeal. The logos appeals appear in most of the main points of the “Letter” such as: the idea of obeying just laws and unjust laws (¶15), why the Negroes had to demonstrate (¶6), how the “untimely” charge is invalid (¶26), and the disappointments in the white moderate and in the white church (¶23). This evidence shows that the logos appeals appear in almost every argument King makes unlike the pathos or ethos appeal which are only used in a few. King proves most of his points using the logos appeals, so accordingly the logos appeal has the most effect on me. This is one reason why I am compelled to say that the logos appeal is used more strongly than the other appeals.
In addition, I feel the evidence and logic behind the logos appeals are more persuasive than the other appeals. When King discusses the obeying of just laws and the disobeying unjust laws, he does so logically with evidence that both King and the clergymen can agree on. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” (¶16). Here King is saying that a just law is a law that does not contradict God’s law, but when it does it is then considered an unjust law. This quotation shows how King uses evidence and logic that both he and the clergymen, as religious men, can agree on. This type of argument is very convincing to me and to most other people as well because I view it as a clearly logical idea. Because the type of reasoning used by logos appeals is hard to dispute, the logos appeals are most persuasive.
However, the pathos appeal, which tries to gain the sympathy of the audience, argues a couple of gripping points very well in the “Letter” as well. In one of those arguments, King has a long paragraph devoted to giving descriptions of the harsh lives of African-Americans during the past 340 years. King says “that when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (¶14). In this quotation taken from among many other examples in the paragraph, King shows how African-Americans live their lives in the United States under racial prejudice and violence. Through this paragraph, the reader can actually feel the violence that is being carried out against African-Americans. As I read the paragraph, I was extremely saddened by the horrific violence of lynching and the effects of segregation. Here the intention of the appeal is carried out because the readers sympathize with African-Americans, and many times one’s emotions have a stronger effect in influencing one’s actions more than logic and reasoning. Thus, the pathos appeal is very persuasive in King’s argument and proves to be very effective in the “Letter.”
Nevertheless, King does not use the pathos appeal to directly argue the “Public Statement’s” arguments; rather he uses it indirectly as part of the logos appeal. This is why I feel the logos appeal is most effectively used, because King uses the logos appeal in the “Letter” to directly criticize many points made by the clergymen in their “Public Statement.” For example, here King criticizes the point the clergymen had made about peaceful demonstrations triggering violence:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? . . . We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. (¶25)
The analogy in the quotations means that because an action triggers an illegal or harmful action it does not mean that the first action should be condemned. It is not the robbed man’s fault for carrying money around, rather it is the robber’s fault for stealing the money. The African-American’s demonstrations are peaceful and legal, and therefore the demonstrators should be allowed to demonstrate. If violence might happen afterwards, society should punish those who cause the violence not stop the peaceful protestors. People who urge African-Americans to stop the demonstrations because they precipitate violence are using incorrect logic. King argues his line of reasoning in this example using a very clear logos appeal. King states the point made by the clergymen in the “Public Statement,” and then directly presents his counterargument using a logos appeal. He does this consistently throughout the “Letter,” and that is why I feel the logos appeal is most effective.
In conclusion, we can see that the appeal King uses most effectively is the logos appeal. For one, the logos appeal is used the most throughout the “Letter.” In addition, the logos appeals are most persuasive because they are supported by good logic and good reasoning. Even though the pathos appeal is also very persuasive in its argument because it gains the sympathy of the reader illustrating that African-Americans deserve freedom, I still feel that the logos appeal works most effectively since it directly criticizes the points made by the “Public Statement,” which is the whole point of King’s response. Furthermore, the pathos appeals argue indirectly as part of the logos, but not directly in the point as with logos. Hence, that is why I feel King uses the logos appeal most effectively in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”