April 12th, 1963 was Good Friday, a day for Christians to commemorate Jesus Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary. The symbolism of that day was not lost on Martin Luther King or the other people fighting for the end of racist Jim Crow laws. Dr. King was well known at this time. He had international support. When he lent his name to a cause, it was bound to draw attention. Dr. King was both respected as a reverend and as a freedom fighter. His tactic of non-violent protest tended to attract journalists, and while it was remarkably effective, it made more moderate-leaning civil rights advocates uncomfortable. Dr. King was arrested for using non-violent protest to demand business and civic leaders to desegregate shops in what was considered one of the least integrated cities in the American South. Occupying soda fountains, among other similar tactics, inevitably led to citizen and police violence against Black people, who through the tactics of non-violence, invited bodily harm to raise sympathy for the cause of civil rights. Often, protestors would voluntarily break what they considered unjust laws to fill the jails. In response, a group of eight White religious leaders penned a letter that would appear in the Birmingham newspaper the day Dr. King was arrested for his efforts to lead a major protest in the history of civil rights. They found Dr. King’s tactics were unsettling, and they wanted him to stop pressing so hard for immediate change. Using his time as he waited for release from Jail, Dr. King wrote a public letter to the religious leaders who demanded slower progress to civil rights.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King begins by introducing himself. He explains his expertise on the matter, and why the struggle in Birmingham was exceptional enough to require his direct involvement. He goes on to detail explicitly how non-violent protest is employed. He explains that, for one reason or another, circumstances caused them to delay their protest. This frustration brought more people into the movement. With growing interest from people inside, and outside, the community, they decided there was no point in delaying the direct action any longer. The plurality of those involved felt they had waited long enough for change to happen on its own.
Dr. King uses the remaining letter to justify law-breaking to achieve his goals of social justice. He describes the violence that young, Black people encounter daily. He compares the daily threat of violence black people suffered to the law he broke that preceded his imprisonment. Dr. King appeals to the religious leaders that being jailed for parading without a permit was the smallest crime in comparison to slavery and Jim Crow.
Dr. King contrasts his transgression to that of unjust laws that had before led to the slaughter of groups of people. He uses Hitler as an example of the law being employed to facilitate genocide. Dr. King is attempting to show that rules alone are not the basis of morality. He wants to prove that disobedience can be an ethical tool used to overturn unjust laws.
In a “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King places the blame for the slow progress of civil rights squarely at the feet of the White, moderate citizen. He goes as far as to say that they are a greater hindrance to the cause he champions. Dr. King is insistent that waiting any longer will be devastating to the cause of integration. He compares hampering the cause of civil rights with the poisoning of Socrates. He points to many instances in history when the public was wrong in its opinion. Dr. King evokes the tragic hero who means well yet is blind to their own flaws. The flaw that could eventually become their undoing was waiting for social justice to simply happen on its own, without the bravery of so many Black women and men. Throughout the letter, he appeals to good and kind people’s sense of urgency in doing the right thing. To convince people who are not already in complete agreement with his tactics, Martin Luther King uses rhetorical appeals.
In fact, the protest itself was an appeal. Dr. King is explicit about why they would disrupt the peace to have their message heard. Using adjective-laden sentences, he describes the terrible conditions that Black people have suffered. He points to the demeaning racial signs. He invites us to find this segregation deplorable. These signs told Black people where they were not allowed to shop. These signs separated the races in every facet of life. Dr. King appeals to the reader’s sense of ethics, called “ethos,” and their morals. Dr. King had much practice as a preacher attempting to appeal to people’s emotions. He was adept at describing examples with vivid imagery that connected to the listener.
Dr. King uses logos, or a logical appeal, when he reminds the recipients of his letter that many respected White people stood on the side of protest. He lists the names of White writers and freedom fighters who have sometimes sat in jail just like Dr. King was as he wrote. He reminds them that any aid from White people was not necessarily coming from White churches. Dr. King provides a logical appeal for why the cause of civil rights is a universal charge. Dr. King argues that these religious leaders and their organization were not qualified to pass judgment on his tactics. He suggests that there is plenty of support from Black churches to win the fight without the White religious leader’s explicit help.
At the end of his letter, Dr. King gives examples of all the people he believes will win civil rights for Black people. He tells us that among the true heroes are older, Black women. He lends his own credibility, or ethos, to these embattled marchers and political instigators. Throughout the letter, Dr. King uses specific examples of where White leadership had failed him. Using ethical appeals, he attempts to persuade White people to stand beside Black activists. He offers much proof that non-violent protest will succeed where other tactics have failed. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that he was clearly correct on all accounts.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King uses his credibility, and moral standing, as well as his organizational skills and deep understanding of emotional appeals, to help sway those on the fence over to his side in support of organized protest. He was many things to many people, and while the struggle continues, he remains a symbol of the resilience of the human spirit. While we have countless examples of how rhetorical appeals can be used to foment division among groups, Dr. King proved in his time that using a tactful approach, people who were once resistant to positive change can eventually be persuaded to join in the good fight.