Letter From Birmingham Jail Analysis



On April 16, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr wrote a letter from his cell in Birmingham jail. This letter was a response to a message a group of clergy wrote about the Civil Rights movement. This message asked those who took part in the movement to show restraint and “common sense” by withdrawing their support from the Civil Rights movement. King’s letter refuted this message by motivating people to advocate for change now instead of waiting for change to come. Martin Luther King Jr’s letter effectively used audience appeals and figurative language to convey his message that the people needed to make change instead of standing idly by waiting for it to come.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Martin Luther King Jr used Ethos, Pathos, and Logos to appeal to the audience, which strengthened his argument. King started his letter by using Pathos, he explains that “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 … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King). King immediately wanted to evoke memories and strong emotions from his audience so that they would be drawn in to listen to the rest of the letter.

These memories and related experiences are meant to remind the African American community of their struggles so that they want to advocate for change even more. Once King drew in his audience with Pathos, he then used Ethos and Logos to make his argument even stronger. He wanted  to further explain the differences between a just and unjust law, so he wrote to his audience “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King). King used his knowledge of history to his strength in this letter. By mentioning a well-known philosopher he made himself more credible because it showed that he was educated. Since King credited St Thomas Aquinas for the ideas, he not only made himself appear more credible but also logical as Aquinas was a philosopher and knew the subject well. Martin Luther King Jr wisely used the three audience appeals to build his argument.

Figurative Language

Martin Luther King Jr also used figurative language to build and strengthen his argument. King used a metaphor in the second sentence of his letter stating that “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” (King). The metaphor compares America to other countries to illustrate how slow America was at creating change. King wanted to show how other countries have been growing and evolving while the U.S. remains, for the most part, stagnant.

King knew that Americans are very prideful of their country and by comparing the U.S. to foreign lands he was challenging his audience to remember that they should be proud of America. However, to be proud they would need to evoke change first. King then used figurative language to explain that “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair” (King). Not only did King use figurative language but he used strong and powerful words such as “abyss” to encapture the struggles of the African American community.

The figurative language helps readers understand that the African American community was not going to stand around and just accept the hate, they were going to do something about it. The strong words stressed how dire the situation was and that change needed to happen soon. Martin Luther King Jr’s use of figurative language helped build his argument and conveyed the message that King did not want to wait for change anymore.

By using audience appeals and figurative language, Martin Luther King Jr's letter efficiently constructed his argument. He appealed to the crowd with Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, which reinforced his reasoning. Figurative language was also used by Martin Luther King Jr to develop and improve his claim. Martin Luther King Jr. made a real impact on American society as he was one of the most influential leaders in the equality movement. Americans can still see the influence he has on America today; the U.S. would not be the same without him.