Edison Orellana Mrs.

Cottingham Rhetoric 105 4 March 2013

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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 to eight clergymen in response to their letter known as “A Call For Unity.” The letter asked for the halt 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. Part of 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 his argument morally irrefutable.

King’s letter is littered here and there with snippets of pathos that appear next to logos and ethos and some sections are exclusively use pathos. King’s paragraph explaining why it is difficult to wait for the end of segregation is one that is entirely dedicated to stirring the emotion of the reader of which it does quite an effective job. The main theme throughout the paragraph is King’s urge to the clergymen to see things from the black person’s perspective. The clergymen want King to wait for their chance at freedom so that the courts may handle it. Since patience is universally considered as a virtue, they believe it is perfectly reasonable to ask King to delay his direct action so that desegregation can be handled in the courts. King makes the claim that the time to wait is over. He says, “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.” (King 12) It is important to notice that King associates himself and all blacks
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King, Martin L. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]." Letter from a Birmingham Jail [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 go away when someone dies; it lives on among every generation. The unity that King establishes between 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 eternal group of indignants. When pointing out the injustices that whites have brought forth upon blacks he reiterates the timelessness of the issue with, “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim”. King wrote his letter in 1963 so there hadn’t been any serious issues with lynching since the 1920s. King brings it up partially as a ploy to evoke an emotional reaction about a violation of the eighth amendment, but also to point out how issues of color based conflict has existed before his time but continue to persist.

Further along in this paragraph, King uses many examples of the kinds of problems that blacks face every day in Birmingham. One of the reasons that this part of the letter is so effective is because of the degree of specificity that King uses in his examples of the injustices that blacks face. Instead of merely saying that the blacks are oppressed he says, “…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, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people… then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” (King 12) The bleak picture that 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 to blacks, 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 the simplicity of a little girl wanting to visit an amusement park, King addresses the unseen and insidious repercussions of what segregation can do to a person. He says that it breeds contempt in innocent little girls who are metaphorically colorblind up until they realize the alienation that they face for the color of their skin. When considering the effectiveness of King’s argument it is important 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 no association and nor do they want any association with blacks. If they could, they would probably want them to live in a separate sphere altogether where there is zero chance of interaction. But when King talks about the little girl and her desire to visit the amusement park, the prosegregationist white person reading the letter does not picture the black person that they desperately 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 is different between blacks and whites and the reader understands the universal humanity between all 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 with inner 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) King’s use of pathos in this quote exemplifies moral irrefutability. Calling someone stupid implies that the

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person lacks intellectual merit, and assuming that that person does lack some desired degree of intelligence, this name never has to be permanent. One can take action to increase their intelligence through reading or schooling. But when someone calls another person a “nigger” derogatorily, there is nothing that that person can do to change themselves. When nigger is used as an insult to someone’s race, it is impossible for that person to remove themselves from the category of “nigger” so that they may no longer be called as such. The only thing that can be done is point out the foolishness of racial bigotry and why someone is not inferior because of their race. The way that King preludes the quote by pointing out the commonality between whites and blacks makes this particular quote moral evidence against racism. King, very appropriately, uses the word “degenerating” to describe what it feels like for blacks to be deemed as inferior. Whites would certainly object if someone made their husbands or wives feel like degenerates, so by King’s argumentative equating of the two races, he makes it clear why segregation is undoubtedly a moral injustice.

Another example of pathos oriented argument comes when King defends the direct action style protest. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.” (King 24) This passage uses a lot of action style words that invoke a sense of urgency. King even uses the word urgency later in this paragraph. He uses several of the action words and phrases like yearning, birthright, Zeitgeist, Promised Land, urge, pent up resentments, latent frustrations, and pilgrimage. To the reader, this interprets as an internal passion for freedom that has existed within the hive mind of black people ever since their literal

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and figurative enslavement. Freedom is something that appeals to everyone. Surely there have been times when even the most privileged whites were hindered by imprisonment whether that imprisonment comes from their parents, educational institutions, or work places. Imprisonment and the desire to escape it, is universally valued and engrained into the primal instincts of man. Not only is King appealing to the reader’s overt emotions like sympathy, but he is also appealing to the basic emotions that everyone feels deep within which makes his argument doubly effective. More can be said, but the point is clear: when there exists a great oppressive force over a great enough number of people for a long enough time and is ignored for a long enough time, direct action is inevitable. At the end of the letter King uses some light pathos to express his hope for the future of the civil rights movement. “They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment… I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. …We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” (King 34) King’s reasoning for expressing this hope is probably to reiterate the inevitability of the end of black oppression. He makes it sound like it is just a matter of time and he is merely informing the clergymen of what the future will be like. He is probably so confident about the first part of his letter that to him, he has already won the battle because his letter has probably already changed the minds of the white people reading it. He says that the blacks’ destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. This usage of pathos, again, equates black struggles with American struggles and implants a sense of patriotism associated with the

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civil rights movement; his fight for freedom sounds like the American thing to do (if there is an American way of doing something).

King’s use of pathos is abounding throughout the Letter from Birmingham Jail. The strong words and vivid imagery in the letter not only stir the emotions of the 1960s era reader, but also appeal to their moral compass regarding questions of right and wrong. It is evident that this letter had a very clear purpose to persuade not just the clergymen to which it was addressed, but every white person living during the civil rights movement who had some sort of racial aggression against blacks. As long as outward physical differences have some sort of prevalence regarding the judgment of another’s character, King’s letter will always need a reader.

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