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Use of Pathos in Letter From Birmingham Jail

Use of Pathos in Letter From Birmingham Jail

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Published by Edison Orellana
An analysis of the effectiveness of pathos in Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail.
An analysis of the effectiveness of pathos in Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail.

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Published by: Edison Orellana on Mar 17, 2013
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10/12/2013

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Orellana 1Edison OrellanaMrs. CottinghamRhetoric 1054 March 2013
ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF PATHOS IN MARTIN LUTHER KING JR’S
LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL
1
 
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter while incarcerated in Birmingham jail toeight clergymen in response to their letter known as “
A Call For Unity.”
 The letter asked for thehalt of direct action type protest in Birmingham, Alabama that Martin Luther King was leading. The letter has become known as one of the greatest works of argument in American history. Partof the reason for the letter’s notoriety and effectiveness is due to its eloquent use of pathos.King’s use of pathos in his letter not only supports the claims that he makes but also makes hisargument morally irrefutable.King’s letter is littered here and there with snippets of pathos that appear next to logosand ethos and some sections are exclusively use pathos. King’s paragraph explaining why it isdifficult to wait for the end of segregation is one that is entirely dedicated to stirring the emotionof the reader of which it does quite an effective job. The main theme throughout the paragraph isKing’s urge to the clergymen to see things from the black person’s perspective. The clergymenwant King to wait for their chance at freedom so that the courts may handle it. Since patience isuniversally considered as a virtue, they believe it is perfectly reasonable to ask King to delay hisdirect action so that desegregation can be handled in the courts. King makes the claim that thetime to wait is over. He says, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional andGod given rights.” (King 12) It is important to notice that King associates himself and all blacks
1
King, Martin L. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]."
Letter froma BirminghamJail [King, Jr.]
.AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER - UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2013.<http://goo.gl/3dSE>.
 
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currently alive, with blacks of the past. It means that segregation is a problem that doesn’t goaway when someone dies; it lives on among every generation. The unity that King establishesbetween himself and all black people is an appeal to emotion because instead of viewing King as just one man, or the blacks of Birmingham as one small subset, they are viewed as an eternalgroup of indignants. When pointing out the injustices that whites have brought forth upon blackshe reiterates the timelessness of the issue with, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynchyour mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim”. King wrote hisletter in 1963 so there hadn’t been any serious issues with lynching since the 1920s. King bringsit up partially as a ploy to evoke an emotional reaction about a violation of the eighthamendment, but also to point out how issues of color based conflict has existed before his timebut continue to persist.Further along in this paragraph, King uses many examples of the kinds of problems thatblacks face every day in Birmingham. One of the reasons that this part of the letter is so effectiveis because of the degree of specificity that King uses in his examples of the injustices that blacksface. Instead of merely saying that the blacks are oppressed he says, “…when you suddenly findyour tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year olddaughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised ontelevision, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to coloredchildren, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and seeher beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward whitepeople… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” (King 12) The bleak picturethat King paints regarding segregation is heart-wrenchingly vivid and emotive. The person
 
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reading this letter begins to realize that segregation is more than just a minor annoyance toblacks, it is more than just having to walk a few extra steps to use the water fountain marked“colored,” segregation is something that eats away at King and the rest of the blacks. Beyond thesimplicity of a little girl wanting to visit an amusement park, King addresses the unseen andinsidious repercussions of what segregation can do to a person. He says that it breeds contemptin innocent little girls who are metaphorically colorblind up until they realize the alienation thatthey face for the color of their skin. When considering the effectiveness of Kings argument it isimportant to consider the audience that he is writing for and the point of view of that audience. The clergymen that wrote
A Call For Unity
letter feel uncomfortable about blacks. They have noassociation and nor do they want any association with blacks. If they could, they would probablywant them to live in a separate sphere altogether where there is zero chance of interaction. Butwhen King talks about the little girl and her desire to visit the amusement park, the pro-segregationist white person reading the letter does not picture the black person that theydesperately want to be rid of; they picture a little girl who has the same hopes, the same dreams,the same desires, and the same goals. Suddenly, the reader loses touch with what they
think
isdifferent between blacks and whites and the reader understands the universal humanity betweenall people.“When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro,living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued withinner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” (King 12) Kings use of pathos in this quote exemplifies moral irrefutability. Calling someone stupid implies that the

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