“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a famous open letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. The primary point of the letter was to respond to the “Call for Unity” that white members of the church created in Alabama a few days earlier. In it, they stated that they were aware of the injustices that were present in society, but that the legal system was the place to fight that battle instead of taking it outside in the streets, against police and the rest of society. King was opposed to this, as he felt that everyone had a part to play in the presence of racism, and subsequently its abolition. The only way to be legitimately heard was by making the problem and the subsequent fight for a solution public; unjust laws needed to be disobeyed in order to portray moral responsibility.
In order to appeal to these clergymen, and subsequently whomever else read the letter, King opts to employ pathos in the writing of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Pathos is an emotional appeal, and is one of the three modes of persuasion delineated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Pathos can be conveyed in many ways, but the primary two include metaphor and passion. When conveying pathos, the speaker or writer can use a metaphor or some other kind of hook to draw the reader in and allow them to connect the story being told to their own life. Furthermore, the speaker or writer can deliver their message with clear passion, showcasing intense and fervent emotion when dealing with the situation. This can make the audience much more sympathetic to the reader, as they can feel more emotionally invested. More than other methods of persuasion, this one is the most emotional – “persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions” (Aristotle, Rhetoric).
Pathos is used by Martin Luther King, Jr., to appeal to the audience of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” connecting their religious loyalty and sense of honor to his campaign to end segregation and racism. King links the suffering of his people at the behest of the Birmingham police force to his audience’s praise at their actions, making them feel horrible for applauding such an act. Metaphors such as Biblical references and other such allusions appeal to their sense of Biblical loyalty by painting his crusade as similar to other righteous Biblical crusades, using pathos to play on their sympathies toward these religious figures. Furthermore, King’s use of emotional appeals of sympathy, and his humility in the presentation of his argument makes the audience feel guilty for opposing his position, and guilty for not coming to this righteous man’s simple request for aid sooner.
King’s use of metaphor has the effect of putting his appeals in a more familiar perspective to the clergymen who are his audience; in the third paragraph, he compares his presence in Birmingham to the Biblical examples of “the prophets of the eighth century BC [who] left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world” (King, 1963). This example is meant to connect his actions with righteous actions portrayed in the Bible; it is an example of pathos as it appeals to their emotions and links what he is doing to actions that they could not question or look down upon. As a result, his actions become righteous as well. To the claims that he is an extremist, King later relates himself with other extremist Biblical figures, such as Amos, Paul and Martin Luther. He then transitions smoothly to real and recent figures, like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. All of these individuals performed extreme actions for the sake of the greater good; since they are lauded as heroes, especially by these clergymen, there is no reason to look down upon King’s similarly righteous, but extreme actions. Given their status as extremists, he puts the emotional burden on the audience to determine how their energy will be spent – “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be” (King, 1963).
In conclusion, Martin Luther King uses many elements of pathos in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in order to convince the clergymen who wrote “A Call for Unity” that what he did was righteous, and that injustices must be fought wherever they may be found, instead of merely in the courts. Metaphors link his cause to other righteous causes normally celebrated by his audience, so as to link them together and make their cause more sympathetic. Emotional appeals, such as his insistence that he is taking up their time and remaining humble and apologetic during his letter makes him less confrontational, and therefore less easy to ignore. In addition to that, his detailed descriptions of the hardships that occurred at the hands of the people his audience celebrated makes it harder to support them in the long run.
Aristotle. Rhetoric. [1st Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 1954. Print.
King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham city jail. Birmingham: American Friends Service Committee, 1963. Print.