Martin Luther King Jr. as an Authorative Figure in Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Over the course of Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), the author, Martin Luther King Jr., makes extended allusions to multiple philosophers, among them Aquinas and Socrates. His comparison would seem to indicate that he shares an affinity with them. However, the clarity with which he makes his arguments and the dedication to a single premise strikes most strongly of Kant. Just as Kant’s magnum opus, Critique of Pure Reason, attempted to completely upend a previously accepted mode of thought, so also was King’s work devoted to a single objective: the protection of civil disobedience as a form of protest such that the Civil Rights Movement could continue in uncompromised form. Despite this singularity of purpose, the complexity of the situation meant that a more nuanced response to the statement A Call for Unity as published by eight Alabama Clergymen was necessary. In this way, King’s letter in fact served a fourfold purpose: to establish himself as a legitimate authority in the eyes of his audience, to show the trials of the black in America, to justify his cause, and to argue the necessity of immediate action.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter, written to the Clergymen from Birmingham Prison, he uses the rhetorical appeal of ethos to establish his credibility on the subject of racial discrimination and injustice. He starts off the letter with “My Dear Fellow Clergymen”. By him saying this, he is putting himself on the same “level” as the clergymen, sending the message that he is no less than them and they are no better than him. He then goes on to say, “I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”. He is telling them that he has credibility on the matter of injustice, not because he is the recipient of white privilege, but because he is well researched on the subject. King says, “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. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently, we share staff, educational, and financial resources with our affiliates.” The purpose for the introduction is to establish his credibility as a member of the United States of America. He is proving to them that he contains just as much intellect on the subject of injustice and racial discrimination, if not more.

Martin Luther King Jr. then appeals to pathos by showing the trials his people have gone through. He does this by using lines such as, “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.”, and “when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters.” In these lines he is using incendiary language like “vicious mobs” and parallelism such as “lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim” by using this kind of language and sentence structure King is making you envision and feel what he had to see his friends and family go through in those hard times. Throughout the whole paragraph using this kind of sentence structure and a lot of imagery the audience starts to feel what it would be like to be in King’s position and feel the pain and troubles he had to go through. It is really an emotional paragraph, and using this emotion at the beginning of his letter captures the attention of his audience. This is exactly what King wanted in order to make the audience feel the strong emotion and pain he felt, and persuade you to keep reading the letter to hear what he has to say about these outrage of acts, show you positive ways to change them, and justify his cause of writing this letter in response to the clergymen.

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Martin Luther King then proceeds to justify his cause for protest and establishes reasons for the advancement of civil rights. Specifically, he does so by raising doubts about the meaning of a “just law” and pointing out specific examples in which laws were unfair and unjust. King says, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” Here he establishes a powerful example of an unjust law (how it was illegal to aid a Jewish person in Germany during Hitler’s rule), and how he would have reacted to it (giving aid to his “Jewish brothers”). This tosses the ball back into the clergymen’s court – implying that they should think about what they would have done. It is assumed that as good Christians, they would have given aid to any person in need. He draws a correlation to the atrocities committed against the Jews to the atrocities committed against African Americans in America – though on a much smaller scale, the situations can be considered similar, with unjust laws bringing about violence and deaths. King forces the clergymen to think about the morally correct course of action. Martin Luther King then justifies his fight for an “extremist” cause by providing specific examples of other historical “extremist” causes that actually brought about changes for the better. He says, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love… was not Amos an extremist for justice… was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel… was not Martin Luther an extremist… and John Bunyan… and Abraham Lincoln… and Thomas Jefferson.” King’s appeal to logos in this quote is very effective because it has an impact on his target audience– white preachers. By mentioning important historical and religious figures such as Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, and Thomas Jefferson, King makes the unmistakable point that if those people were doing the right thing, he is too. This appeal to logos proves historically that “extremist” causes are not always wrong, and can bring about positive, much needed change.

King again uses pathos in order to appeal to the human emotions so as to incite the clergymen and citizens alike to take action and end the oppressive burden of racism and hate. King describes his disappointment in the church, “The judgement of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century” (King). Here, King conveys a sense of panic and urgency to the audience by suggesting that the once almighty Church could falter without changes in spirit and behavior by people. The phrase “judgement of God” is associated with fear of the power of God, in reference to biblical stories involving consequences of God’s disapproval, causing the audience to feel fearful (an effect of pathos) and to feel a need to change in order to avoid God’s wrath.

Also, by referring to the Church as “an irrelevant social club,” King disrespects the Church to convey his point and demonstrate the future of the Church if people are not to take action. Calling the Church “an irrelevant social club” can anger the clergymen and other readers, forcing the clergymen to realize that if they are irritated by a rude reference now, then they must take action to prevent such disrespect. Also, the “If . . . then” statement is an effective method at presenting an idea and then presenting the consequence. Another effective way King appeals to pathos while emphasising the need for urgency is by bringing his audience into the letter by the use of second person. In the letter King gives his opinion on the praise that some were giving the Birmingham police force by directly addressing them with what he saw in the situation. He says “I doubt that you would so quickly commended the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment. . . if you were to watch them push old Negro women and young Negro girls. . .if you were to see them slap and kick. . . refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.” (King) This emotional and descriptive narrative combined with the use of the second person “you” have a very strong effect. He uses his personal experiences from his situation to back up his argument and show the brutality of the police force. King uses anaphora in the multiple use of the phrases “I doubt that you. . .” and “if you were to see. . .” to confront the audiences’ perception and present his evaluation. The overall tone of the last section is very emotional and he urges the readers of the letter to adopt the same sense of concern.

Throughout his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. establishes himself as a legitimate authority in the eyes of his audience, shows the trials his people have gone through, justifies his cause, and argues the necessity of immediate action. By using religious examples which appeal directly to his audience, the preachers, he attempts to gain their support and legitimize his course of action. King also alludes to the examples from many philosophers and saints, including Socrates and Aquinus. The overall urgency and call for action in the letter is emphasised by his strong appeals to pathos. His imagery, personal experiences, and appeals to ethos and logos throughout make a strong, well rounded argument. He effectively demonstrates the impact of the trials the African American people have gone through and proves that what they are fighting for is a just cause on both legal and moral grounds. By inspiring sympathy through strong emotional appeals, King brings hope for positive change – that the white clergymen reading his letter will begin to understand the overlying problem and work for change. That is the ultimate goal – to bring about a better world for those under persecution and create an equal, just future for America as a whole.

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