Letter from Birmingham City Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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What's an example of pathos in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham City Jail"?

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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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Give examples of ethos, pathos, and logos in King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."

King's Letter from Birmingham Jail shows how a skilled writer can use the Aristotlean elements of rhetoric to tremendous effect. First, the context: King is writing in 1963. He has been jailed for engaging in protests in Birmingham against "Whites only" signs in city stores. By 1963, he had become a national figure in the civil rights movement. So the letter is written by a great man, who is in jail for protesting against racism, who seeks to defend his actions and answer his critics.

Ethos is the credibility of the speaker and can be the trickiest rhetorical element to identify. This is because so often one's credibility lies in actions, not words. King does go to some trouble to establish his authority within the movement when he explains that he has "organizational ties" that bring him to Birmingham; he also connects his work to the work of the apostles in spreading the gospel. But what truly establishes his credibility is not anything that he says, per se, but what he has done. Think, for a moment, about how the impact of this letter might change if it were known as "Letter from the Birmingham Hyatt Regency" instead of "Letter from Birmingham Jail"!

Logos is persuasion through the use of facts. One example of this approach can be found in King's painstakingly detailed explanation of why he chose to stage his protests when he did: he lays out, very specifically, the chronology of events, how he decided to not act during the mayoral election cycle, and the training that was provided for the demonstrators. In recounting these facts, he is arguing that his decisions were clearly thought out and logical.

Pathos is persuasion through the appeal to the emotions, but what this really means is writing in such a way that your reader feels what you feel. Out of many passages, perhaps the most affecting is when he explains why it is essential not to "wait" for change. King is able to explain the degradation of racism in a single, incredible sentence:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

It is important to note that often students think of ethos, logos, and pathos as being separate things, like different kinds of rocks, but this is really not the case. The sentence above, for example, is meant to explain in clear terms the black experience‚—it is meant to make the reader empathize with blacks. But, although it is not referring to any specific fact, it also has power because it alludes to things we agree are factual: people were lynched; amusement parks were segregated. In that sense it can be thought of as logos. And, the power of the sentence, the clarity of King's thought, the rhythm of his prose style—these things mark the author as someone of exceptional gifts, not only as a writer, but as a leader. So, it also serves to establish his ethos.

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Give examples of ethos, pathos, and logos in King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail."

King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" has often been used as a model of ethos, pathos, and logos, the three pillars of argument. 

Ethos is credibility or authority. King establishes his authority from the start of the letter, writing, "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." He also establishes his authority by comparing himself to no less of a person than the Apostle Paul, and refers to Socrates as a model, showing he is an educated man.

King uses pathos or emotional appeal when he writes: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." He appeals to emotions with even more direct examples at the end of the letter:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; 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, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

King also relies on logos, or facts, to explain why the civil rights movement has come to Birmingham: "Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts." 

By establishing his credibility, explaining in factual terms why he is in Birmingham, and appealing to people's emotions with examples of what racism has done to black people, he writes a strongly persuasive letter arguing for racial equality now.

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