Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
Maybe it was all the preachin'. Maybe it was all the schoolin'. Whatever it was, Dr. King knew how to rhetoric the you-know-what out of speeches. There's a little bit of everything in "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Dr. King makes an appeal to his readers' hearts and heads while alluding to the moral authority of the Christian tradition, American ideals, and the collective suffering of the African American community.
Let's check out each one more closely.
Aside from introducing himself as the president of the SCLC, Dr. King doesn't use ethos explicitly. He doesn't claim to be the foremost authority on Jesus or the greatest political strategist of all time, for instance. But his ethical standing is implied by the way he frames his argument and stakes his claim on a moral truth higher than local laws and ordinances. He out-Christians his Christian critics. He takes America's highest cultural ideals seriously.
He also references a dozen historical heavyweights, from Abraham Lincoln (24), to Paul of Tarsus (3, 24), to Socrates (9, 17, 21), to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (17) (they don't make names like they used to), arguing that he and his followers are in this lineage of freedom fighters, countercultural visionaries, and righteous sufferers of persecution. Talk about the ethical high ground.
He also acknowledges the sincerity and status of the clergymen who wrote the letter he's responding to, respecting their credibility as men of good will who are all knowledgeable about Bible teachings.
Although many of Dr. King's other speeches and works were specifically anchored on appeals to emotion and inspiration, the major moments of pathos in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" come in the parts about the suffering of the African American community. In order for MLK's argument to make sense, you have to understand why the situation is unjust. So he gives a vivid picture of what Black Americans have to go through in the segregated South.
…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?" (12)
This bit really gets to the heart of any parent—or anyone who loves children, really. By giving this kind of example, Dr. King is allowing white people a highly relatable glimpse into the pain of the Black community.
Likewise, he goes on to offer a glimpse into the way the criminal justice system treated African Americans:
I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. (34)
Nowadays, because cellphone cameras are everywhere and social media is so popular and accessible, a lot of police misconduct has come to the public's attention. Back in the 1960s, the only recourse victims of police brutality had was to get their accounts published in the newspaper or tell someone important. Dr. King had to use his platform to set the record straight. He might have been hoping that whites would read his accounts and imagine if the word "Negro" had been left out. It could have been their mothers, daughters, and grandfathers.
Even though he uses a lot of what we might call "painful pathos," there are also the signature rhetorical flourishes Dr. King was famous for, reminding us of the beautiful possibilities for America's future. For example:
I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny (34).
This passage is as much directed at his followers and fellow-travelers as it is to whites who are on the fence or unaware of what was going on. He has to temper the ugliness of the situation with at least a few moments of unabashed righteousness and monumental calls to hope.
He closes the letter on this kind of inspirational note, showing again that the preacher might leave the pulpit, but the pulpit doesn't leave the preacher…or something like that. He couldn't ever resist a majestic metaphor or two.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. (39)
You can almost see those stars now…scintillating…
When it comes right down to it, this text makes a seriously devastating logical argument. It deals with the facts of the situation in a way his critics fail to do. It details the local political situation and the ramifications of the recent elections. It explains in detail why non-violent disobedience is the ideal way to proceed. It refutes each element of the argument put forward by the eight white clergymen, one by one.
One of Dr. King's basic arguments in the "Letter" is that just laws should be followed, and unjust laws should be openly and deliberately disobeyed. But in order to win people over to this simple idea, he needs to do more than engage his readers' emotions. So he writes almost like a lawyer for a stretch, defining just and unjust laws from a couple different angles.
Take this paragraph, for example:
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured? (14)
Hard to refute, right? This is a very precise definition of just vs. unjust laws, and in case it went over anyone's head, it's underscored by the obvious point about Black Americans being denied the vote. Even if a reader didn't quite get the point he's making here about "sameness" and "difference made legal," they surely understood the point about democracy.
Even though Dr. King is best remembered for his sonorous voice, towering metaphors, and rousing emotional appeals, inside every speech, sermon, and letter of his is a thoughtful, logical argument.
After his arrest in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a brief correspondence with eight clergymen who represented the state of Alabama. With insincere apology, the clergymen stated why Dr. King had to be held in jail, and with rationality, Martin Luther King Jr. pleaded his case, which described his cause in the city. It turns out that, according to the statement from the clergymen, Dr. King was being held in jail mostly because he was an “outsider,” and he was leading demonstrations that protested racial inequalities.
“However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” the statement from the clergymen reads, after stating that the writers agree with King’s ultimate goal. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” But to this argument presented by the clergymen, which seems to hold no legal bearing (as there are no restrictions about outsiders leading demonstrations, as opposed to locals, and there were no strict laws against peaceful demonstration in any form), King told of his purpose in the city. He first with logical (Logos) aspects in his letter from jail. Toward the beginning of his letter, King writes that it would have been irresponsible for him to stay out of Birmingham at a time when his organization requested his help. He could not sit around in Atlanta and do nothing, so he went to aid the demonstrators of Birmingham. And he reinforced this by stating, “One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: ‘Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?’ The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act,” directly countering their notion that as an outsider, he should not have demonstrated in Birmingham, and that his demonstrations were untimely. King had already seen that the new administration was slow to act, and everything about his organization, the SCLC, logically required him to assist in Birmingham, regardless of bogus legal restrictions. But toward the end of his letter, King really stresses the logical relevance his business. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist,” he states, allowing that even as an outsider, he broke no laws, as the people who support segregation do.
After mentioning why he was required to come to Birmingham, King appeals to the Pathos, or emotions of the clergymen, who insincerely assure King that the new political organization in Alabama will do all it can. “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” King writes in his letter, emotionally countering any remark about how his demonstrations were untimely. He seems to be saying that, if anything, he should have acted sooner, and at the same time, he politely criticizes every past political organization that had been denying African Americans of equal rights. “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. 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,” King continues. In recounting the atrocities that black Americans had been faced with in the past, he is trying to help the clergymen to see it from his perspective, hoping that they will wonder what it would be like if their friends and family had been treated so. This is nothing short of a direct emotional appeal (appealing to the Pathos). He then names some of the basic, every day inequalities that African Americans faced at the time in the south, with such scenarios as “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.” With all of this, King is trying to help place the clergymen in the shoes of the people that his untimely demonstrations were intended to help, and it is a direct emotional appeal.
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake,” King writes later in the letter, appealing to the Ethos. He establishes that he is a credible source of history, and then continues to explain how his protests are comparable to some throughout history that ultimately served to maximize justice everywhere. “It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.” In saying this, he is hoping that the clergymen agree with the actions of the early Americans who opposed strict British rule and taxation, and if they do, he is allowing that his demonstrations will ideally have similar results, which would be a world with more justice and equality, and fewer group restrictions. King then goes on to bash any argument by the clergymen that his actions were wrong because they were illegal. We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal,’” He writes. And with that, he successfully covered each of Socrates’ appeals, which are very relevant in any form of argument.