The selfish and domineering aspect of human nature has naturally led to societal disparity throughout history. Racism has stemmed from this implicit human trait, leading to civil inequity. African-Americans have felt the strangling hold of racism through centuries of suppression and segregation. America’s societal complacency and the perpetuation of racism throughout the 20th century have driven the desperate need for change. The Civil Rights Movement, which emerged in America during the 60s, strove to create equal rights for African-Americans and an egalitarian nation. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement, who used his rhetorical wit, impassioned speeches, and unique forms of protest to drive the need for change. King wrote A Letter From Birmingham Jail, a persuasive argument against racial disparity in America while being imprisoned for his non-violent protests in Birmingham. In this letter, King describes the inequities felt by African-Americans, validates his choosing of the non-violent protest method, and effectually conveys America’s desperate need for racial equality to justify his belief his imprisonment is unfair.King uses the rhetorical devices diction, pathos, and ethos to make A Letter From Birmingham Jail rhetorically effective and convey King’s urge for societal equity.
King’s goal in writing A Letter From Birmingham Jail was to justify why he believed his imprisonment was unjust and that the racism experienced by African-Americans was intolerable. King is able to warrant his position to his audience by using diction – a rhetorical device that consists of the author using the most effective word to express his or her ideas. When describing the daily inequities experienced by African-Americans, King writes: “When you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… (Paragraph 13). King is able to convey the agony African-Americans face by illustrating the suffocating sensation of society’s oppression. King describes the segregation of African-Americans as ‘smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society’, which accurately depicts the ousting of African-Americans from Caucasian-dominated American society. The phrase ‘airtight cage’ signifies African-American’s inability to be freed of restriction caused by segregation and widespread racial hatred. By saying African-Americans suffer ‘in the midst of an affluent society’ conveys the isolation created by racial inequity and the suppression of the African-American race. The illustrious use of language in this phrase is central in communicating the reality of segregation, and King utilizes diction to his full advantage to effectively convey his description of unequal racial treatment.
One of the most unique aspects of King’s civil rights movement was his emphasis on non-violent protest movements to achieve racial equity. King elucidates his choice in A Letter From Birmingham Jail, explaining the intricacies of the non-violent movement, and why this specific method is lawfully just and morally right. King justifies his position by using the rhetorical device of ethos, which is an appeal to authority figures in help to validate an argument. Throughout the letter, King makes numerous allusions to both biblical and historical figures. In paragraph 9, King describes the parallels between his work and the work of Socrates:
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
King believes the goal of the non-violent protest movement is to create societal tension which would lead to societal equity, differing from the violent protest movement, of which King believes creates violent hatred leading to increased disparity. He compares Socrates’ successful method of ‘creating tension in the mind’ to dispel inner ‘myths’ and ‘half-truths’ to his own goal of ‘creating tension in society’ to dispel societal stereotypes and misinformation. By likening Socrates’ method to his own, King is able to validate his idea by supporting it with historical evidence.
In addition to extrapolating his idea that his imprisonment is unjust, King is also able to describe the African-American community’s desperation for social equality. In his letter, King looks to retaliate a statement made by eight white clergymen, who agreed with King’s claim of racial inequity, but believed that this problem should be fought by lawyers in the courts rather than by citizens on the streets. King argues that segregation is an integral part of the daily lives of African-Americans, and immediate action had to be taken by citizens themselves. King is able to effectively convey the daily damage caused by segregation in A Letter From Birmingham Jail by using the rhetorical device of pathos. Pathos is a technique used to appeal to the emotion of the reader to validate an argument. King utilizes this technique throughout the letter to effectively describe the effects of societal inequity on the day-to-day lives of African-Americans, which justifies his emphasis on citizen protest movement. King illustrates the desperate need for change in his 13th paragraph:
“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; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;” (Paragraph 13).
King appeals to emotion by using his children as examples because the protection and love of children is a moral value of which all of America shares. The ‘ominous clouds of inferiority’ King describes as ‘distorting [his daughter’s] personality’ effectively communicates the message King is attempting to get across in his paragraph- the message that we cannot wait any longer to create racial equity. The phrase ‘ominous clouds’ creates a foreboding sensation of continued inequality; in our failure to act now, we have perpetuated racism in our society by transferring it to the next generation. By using pathos in this sense, King is able to dispute the clergymen’s argument that it is too soon for a civil rights movement in America as he depicts the continual ascent of racism as our children grow into adults. Using pathos, King is able to prove his argument of society’s immediate need for change- waiting too long has planted the feeling of inequity and inadequacy into the minds of our next generation.
Martin Luther King Jr. a civil rights icon, used his power of persuasion in A Letter From Birmingham Jail to convey the inequities faced by African-Americans, justify his choosing of the non-violent protest method, and describe America’s desperate need for societal change. Diction, ethos, and pathos have created rhetorical effectiveness in King’s A Letter From Birmingham Jail, and have conveyed his authorial intent in proving the injustice of his imprisonment. With his illustrious use of language, King was able to describe the reality of the societal inequity. King’s use of ethos justified his arguments; validating his choice of the non-violent method of protest. Pathos was used to unify the readership by describing the effect racial inequity had on a moral value shared by all citizens- the belief in the protection of our children. The combination of these rhetorical devices gives King a powerful and rhetorically effective argument, which was what the Civil Rights Movement needed at the time. Martin Luther King Jr.’s compelling and convincing retaliation against segregation is what drew the path for racial equity and societal change in America.