In the letter he composed while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. effectively uses and combines the three classical rhetorical strategies of ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos draws on the writer’s authority or qualifications to present their case. Logos is the appeal to logical or reason, supported by facts. Pathos relies on establishing emotional connections to the reader which encourage them to side with the writer.
Dr. King uses ethos in establishing why he is participating in demonstrations and advising local leaders in related actions to improve civil rights. Along with his role as a pastor, he invokes Christian history and figures such as the apostles. He also identifies himself as a committed public servant in a religiously affiliated organization, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Logos appears in drawing on “hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts” he presents about Birmingham, which provide reasons that this city was selected for the actions. These include extreme segregation, its well-known and “ugly record of police brutality,” and the “reality” of unjust verdicts typically reached in court. King identifies Birmingham as having the worst record among American cities for “unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches.”
While King effectively uses both these strategies, it is his combination with pathos that makes the letter moving and poignant. He includes logos in responding to the idea that demonstrations are premature, and that Black Americans should “wait.” The long list of reasons against waiting, however, rely extensively on their emotional weight. Some examples generate empathy with the physical suffering that they have endured include:
when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity.
Forging empathy on more mundane matters, he appeals to parents’ inability to explain segregation:
when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky.