Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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What is an example of the use of pathos in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" by Martin Luther King Jr.?

One example of pathos that King uses in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" is his inclusion of a five-year-old child asking their father why racism exists. This is particularly powerful because it allows the readers to sympathize with the child, who has already witnessed the horrors of the world, and the father, who is put in the position of disillusioning their child.

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Pathos is an appeal to the emotions, a common rhetorical strategy in both speeches and essays. Writers and speakers often resort to pathos as they know that appealing to the emotions tends to have a more direct, dramatic impact on their audiences than, say, logos, which is an appeal to reason.

In "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," King resorts to pathos on a number of occasions. The first example comes in the very first line, which begins with "while confined here in the Birmingham city jail ..." Immediately, he's attempting to play upon the white clergymen's emotions. He's sitting in jail, indicating that what he's about to say in the rest of the letter comes from someone who's prepared to be incarcerated for his beliefs.

The thrust of King's remarks is that adopting the strictly legal approach endorsed by the white clergymen was previously attempted by the civil rights movement but didn't work. In reminding his correspondents of that inconvenient fact, King once again resorts to pathos to drive home his point:

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.

Here, King is referring to the emotions—of shattered hope, frustration, and disappointment—that came over himself and his fellow civil rights workers when the latest attempt at legal change came to nothing. In doing this, he hopes to persuade the clergymen that their criticism of the civil rights movement for using direct action is ill-founded in the extreme.

King doesn't just criticize the white clergymen, however. He also sets out an inspiring vision of justice for which the civil rights movement has fought and will to continue to fight:

[W]e must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This is classic pathos. As is normally the case when King uses pathos, he employs eloquent language designed to stir the emotions. This is the kind of language that the clergymen themselves most probably use in their own churches. That being the case, King hopes that by speaking their language he will establish some kind of connection between himself and his intended audience.

The most sustained example of pathos in the "Letter" comes in a long, detailed paragraph where King sets out a litany of injustices to which African Americans have been subjected over the past 340 years. Vicious lynch-mobs, extreme poverty in the midst of so much plenty, police brutality, and the humiliation of racial segregation are just some of the many indignities that African Americans have had to put up with over so many centuries.

In a particularly emotional passage, King refers to the heart-rending experience of having to come up with some kind of answer to a five-year-old asking, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?" This is pathos, pure and simple, and very effective pathos, too. In both tone and content it forces the white clergymen to place themselves in King's shoes and ask themselves what they would say in his position.

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