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Examples Of Pathos In Letter From Birmingham Jail Essay

April 28, 2012

Dr. King in the Jefferson Co., AL Courthouse jail, Oct. 1967. During an earlier arrest, he wrote his famous letter from here. (Source: www.history.com)

Pleased by the students’ catching on so quickly to the power of rhetorical schemes and tropes, I asked them to turn next to the handout including Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To contextualize this famous essay, I contrasted King’s situation with Faulkner’s, the latter speaking from the “pinnacle” of high literary achievement, the former, 13 years after Faulkner’s speech, sitting in Birmingham’s jail for having led a protest march against segregation laws and practices.  Pointing to additional rhetorical terminology on the board, I said that Faulkner’s situation, as we had seen, called for ceremonial discourse; in contrast, King’s situation called for “judicial discourse,” the kind of rhetoric that accuses the unjust and defends the just.  But King also had to blend “deliberative discourse” with his judicial discourse, I argued, for he sought to dissuade Americans from tolerating racial discrimination and to advise Americans to live up to the high ideals of the country’s founding, especially the belief that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”   In other words, I explained, though King wrote nonfiction, he had the same goal that Faulkner urged novelists and poets to set, to ‘uplift the heart’ of a nation, to inspire his fellow citizens to endure and to prevail over the brutalities sanctioned by a racist culture.

To achieve these dual aims of discourse, the judicial and the deliberative, King knew, I continued, that he would have to blend carefully the elements of persuasion.  Clearly, his letter could begin with exposition.  He would have to explain to his eight fellow clergymen, who condemned him in the local newspaper for his “unwise” and “untimely” demonstrations, why he had to leave Atlanta for Birmingham.  Then reading from the handout from Questioning, I said that his exposition would also explain “why he had to break the law, why he could wait no longer for freedom.  But he knew that mere exposition would not be enough; he would need to persuade the clergymen, his immediate audience, and the American people, his extended audience, that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ that the ‘stinging darts’ of segregation have made it impossible to wait any longer for freedom” (136).

Then I read one more excerpt from Questioning that provided a preface to our analysis:

To achieve his persuasive goal, he would have to provide plenty of logos, plenty of facts about his nonviolent movement, plenty of examples of lunch counters closed to black men and amusement parks closed to black children, plenty of cases of lynchings and drowning, plenty of testimony from prominent theologians who define segregation as “sin.”  He would also have to temper his outrage over such cruelties with cool reason, stressing the illogic of writing laws that apply to some but not to all.  Such logos, he knew, would build his ethos, his credibility, showing his skeptical audience that he knows the facts of injustice (informed), that he cares about his people’s long sufferings (generous), that he has told the truth about the brutal police.  As a preacher, he knew, too, that he could further build his ethos with pathos, the appeal created by emotionally charged words and vivid imagery imbedded in rhythmic sentences, calling us all, black and white, to rise from “the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” (137)

With King’s rhetorical purpose before us, I asked the students to look at King’s introduction, the first four paragraphs, to determine how he attempts to build his ethos in the presence of an immediate audience, the clergymen, who consider his persona to be entirely negative—an outsider, a trouble-maker, an instigator of “unwise” and “untimely” civic disturbances.  “How does King show his generosity toward these men who have publicly condemned him?” I prompted.  “Does he offer counter accusations?”  Arben responded, saying that King responds to their polite hostility be crediting them with being “men of genuine good will” who therefore deserve to be answered in “patient and reasonable terms.”

Thanking Arben, I reminded the class that a positive ethos must seem informed and honest as well as generously disposed toward the audience.  “How does King send these messages in paragraph two through four?” I inquired.  Several students answered at once, mentioning King’s credentials as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and his “organizational ties” to his Birmingham affiliates, who “invited” King to come, an invitation that never would have been sent, I commented, if he had no knowledge of Birmingham’s troubles or lacked the courage to help solve the problems.

“Then how does inject pathos, emotional appeal, in the next two paragraphs to underscore his honest, generous intentions?” I asked.  Students quickly responded by noting the parallel sentences and the comparisons.  Laureta said that by linking his “gospel of freedom” with that of the “prophets” and the “Apostle Paul,” King makes a comparison that clergymen would have to respect.  Then I wrote on the board the sentence that follows his famous parallel sentence about injustice “anywhere” threatening justice “everywhere”: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  “Can you explain how King intensifies these already strong parallel rhythms?”  Xhemile answered my question, pointing to the metaphors imbedded in the parallel phrases, helping us to see the “network” we must preserve and the “garment” we must all wear to ensure a “destiny” of justice.

Congratulating the students on their astute readings, I then divided the class into three groups of five or six and assigned them further analytical tasks on the blending of ethos, logos, and pathos.  After ten minutes of work, I called for a report from group one, who had been charged with paragraphs 6-11 and their contributions to ethos-building.  This group then outlined King’s attempt to “negotiate with the city fathers” to get “racial signs removed,” then, once that process failed, the “self-purification” process that King and his followers underwent to prepare for “direct action,” a non-violent but dangerous way of challenging an unjust government that would likely respond with police dogs, batons, and jail.  “So how does this use of logos, this evidence of his non-violent process of effecting positive change, build King’s ethos?” I wondered.  Ragip responded by saying that this process shows King’s courage as well as his patience and reasonableness.  “Yes,” I said, “and notice how he ends this section by injecting pathos again.   How so?”  Ragip followed up by noting the reference to Socrates, who also created “nonviolent tension” to liberate his people from “the bondage of myths and half-truths,” just as King and his people strive to “help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”  Praising his habit of citation, I stressed once again that the emotional appeal comes from couching vivid metaphors within parallel sentence structures, juxtaposing the “dark depths” or racism with “majestic heights” of equality.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.**

The Apostle Paul in Prison, Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1627 (Source: www.apostlepaul.net)
The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 1787 (Source: Wikipedia)
Saint Augustine (Source: www.catholic-forum.com)

St. Thomas Aquinas (Source: http://www.marccortez.com)
Judah Leon Magnes and Martin Buber testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in Jerusalem, 1946 (Source: Wikipedia)
Paul Tillich (Source: http://www.allposters.com)

Depiction of the Boston Tea Party (Source: king.portlandschools.org)
Hungarian Freedom Fighter, Time Man of the Year, Time Magazine, Jan. 1957 (Source: Wikipedia)
Christ Before Caiaphas, Mattias Stom, oil on canvas, early 1630s (Source: Wikipedia)

The next group, charged with finding more allusions, presented their list: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, the Boston Tea Party, the Hungarian freedom fighters, Jesus.  “So do these historical and philosophical allusions represent ethos-building, logos, or pathos?” I asked.  Hearing all three answers, I pronounced them all correct, explaining that each example of courageous resistance to tyranny counts as logos, and that such daring resistance stirs our emotions.  “And how do the names of theologians build King’s ethos?” I pushed.  Blerta answered that clergymen would respect the names of saints and that King did not just mention their names but quoted their advocacy for disobeying unjust laws.  I praised her response and noted King’s wisdom in citing the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, both defining segregation as “morally wrong and sinful,” a reference, I said, that no doubt made King’s “dear fellow clergymen” squirm.

Finally, the third group reported on paragraphs 24-26, where King expresses his disappointment with the “white moderate,” the expediential cowards who support King’s cause with their words but never take action to help.  The students found numerous examples of King’s blending of logos and pathos in his critique of these “lukewarm” allies, thereby strengthening his ethos as passionate and informed.  First, they noted the parallel structures that repeat King’s frustration with the willful ignorance and inaction of the white moderates: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand….Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”  Commending their reading, I explained that this repetition of an opening structure of a sentence goes by the Greek term anaphora, and that it adds emotional intensity with its persistent beat: “Now is the time….Now is the time.”  I then asked if they saw King’s method—a strategy we had seen before—of intensifying the beat, a prompt that quickly yielded King’s metaphors imbedded in the parallel sentences, the white moderates’ obstructions becoming a “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” failures to “lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”  I then asked why King used the disgusting “boil” simile.   Hearing no answer, I asked, “What happens when a boil goes unlanced?”  Besa responded that the infection can kill a person, precisely the point of King’s simile: if we fail to open the boil of segregation to “the air of national opinion,” the infection will spread through the national body and ultimately kill.

 As the class prepared to leave, I asked them to re-read King’s letter, focusing this time on the part of logos we had not addressed yet, his use of inductive and deductive reasoning to strengthen his case and to move toward his meditational, peace-making goal.  I reminded students, too, that they would find definitions and illustrations of induction, deduction, and meditational discourse in the handout from Questioning, 153-58.

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This entry was posted in 20th-century American Literature, Books, Religion, Teaching, University of Pristina and tagged American people, anaphora, Apostle Paul, Arben, Aristotelian triangle, Aristotle's Rhetorical Triangle, Atlanta, besa, Birmingham AL, Blerta, Boston Tea Party, ceremonial discourse, clergy, courage, deliberative discourse, democracy, discrimination, equality, ethos, freedom, Hungarian Freedom Fighter, injustice, Jesus, judicial discourse, justice, Laureta, laws, Letter from Birmingham Jail, logos, Martin Buber, Martin Luther King Jr, pathos, Paul Tillich, peace, philosophy, racism, Ragip, respect, rhetoric, Saint Augustine, segregation, Socrates, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Stockholm Address, theology, Thomas Aquinas, William Faulkner, Xhemile by rraymond12. Bookmark the permalink.

About rraymond12

Rich Raymond has served as Professor and Head of the Mississippi State English Department since 2004. In addition to his administrative duties, Dr. Raymond has developed and taught online sections of English Composition I, as well as taught Advanced Composition, eighteenth century English literature, and the various literature survey classes. He served as interim director of the Learning Communities program in 2005 and 2006. He continues as an active scholar, having published his composition textbook, Questioning: Literary and Rhetorical Analysis for Writers, in 2007. Prior to coming to Mississippi State, Dr. Raymond served as Professor of Rhetoric, Director of the Little Rock Writing Project, and Department Chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, before that serving on the English faculty at Armstrong State College, Savannah, Georgia.

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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.

Ethos

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.

Pathos

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…

Logos

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.