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Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Free Argumentative Essays

“Letter from a Birmingham jail” by Martin Luther King

Letter from a Birmingham jail” was written by Martin Luther King as a response to the various open letters that had been written by the members of the clergy regarding his involvement in the protests held in Birmingham. In these letters, the clergymen were rebuking Martin Luther King for causing trouble, citing that he was an outsider, and his views were too radical thus endangering the lives of the young people in Birmingham. It must be acknowledged that Martin Luther King may not have been a Birmingham resident at the time, but he did participate in the protest as a part of his movement towards the liberation of the African American people in the United States. Although King vindicated many issues, especially racial segregation, in his letter, he mainly addressed the concerns raised by the clergymen in their open letters, basing his arguments on the moral grounds within the relevant contexts in the form of a negotiation with the clergymen.

The Arguments

There are about three main arguments presented in this letter. King starts by explaining his presence in Birmingham. The letter states that he is not originally from Birmingham, but he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since the SCLC is connected with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, they were invited to participate in the non-violent direct action program as deemed fit by the organization. The role of the SCLC, in this case, was that of a supportive partner in the fight for Human Rights. Consequently, King argued that he was not an outsider but more of a partner in the Human Rights efforts in Birmingham than in the rest of the Southern States in the US.

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The second argument relates to the justification of the protests. In their letter, the clergymen condemned the protests because, despite their non-violent labels, they were known to precipitate violence and result in numerous disruptions within the area. As a result, the clergymen were willing to distance themselves from the proponents of these protests. To King, however, the fight for the recognition and protection of human rights was crucial, and the sacrifices might be necessary. He believed that violence was truly detrimental, but the fact that the protesters were not the perpetrators of the violence would exonerate them from the blame. In his arguments, he states that condemning the protests because they culminate in violence would be the same as condemning Jesus because His acts of selflessness and divinity led to His crucifixion.

The third argument was about the willingness of the protestors to break the laws. To support this statement, King argued that there are two types of laws. The just laws have to be obeyed because they are based on fairness and equality and help to maintain equitable balance by squaring with the moral ones. However, the unjust laws did not reach the moral or God’s laws and thus served only to oppress the people. It is these laws that should and could be broken in an attempt to compel the authorities to amend them. Such a position rationalized the idea that the protestors were breaking some laws and expecting other laws to be obeyed. In this argument, King uses many examples based on religion and logic as he seeks to justify his involvement in the protests.

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Critiquing the Argument

Throughout the letter, King uses logos, ethos, and pathos as a basis for his arguments. Logos implies appealing to logic as a way of validating an argument. Conversely, ethos appeals to the authority while pathos resorts to emotions. In his letter, King uses all three of them to convey his thoughts and demonstrate his sound reasoning.

Logos. In the first paragraph, King seeks to explain his response to the criticisms of the clergymen. He states that there are far too many people criticizing his work, and if he paid attention to all of them, he might never get the time to do what he actually is supposed to be doing. This is a very logical argument, and it works in highlighting the value that he has given the clergymen and their opinions of his work. Another example is in the second paragraph of the letter where he explains why he was in Birmingham. The clergymen had referred to him as an outsider who had come to cause trouble for the youth of Birmingham. To answer them, King states that he was invited to participate in the peaceful protests because he has organizational ties with the group that was planning the protests. Thus, his presence should be viewed not as of an organizer or a troublemaker but rather as a supporter. It means that he was merely showing his support for the people of Birmingham rather than inciting them to partake in protests. Another impressive example where King uses logos is when he explains the difference between just and unjust laws. He endeavors to justify why people break some laws while advocating for compliance with the other laws. The explanations presented in this section of the letter are very simple and logical and thus utterly convincing.

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Ethos. Using ethos in the first paragraph, King states that he recognizes the position of the clergymen and thus believes that the criticisms are devoid of malice. Such an attitude indicates respect and understanding on his part, which makes it easier for the clergymen to pay ample attention to his response. In the second paragraph, King explains his position in SCLC and how he is involved with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. It is in doing so he validates not only his presence in Birmingham but also his participation in the protests together with the Birmingham youth. Highlighting his authority within SCLC and their connection with the local organizers of the protest clarifies King’s position and exonerates him from the unfounded accusations of coming to cause trouble in Birmingham. Another example of ethos is in the last paragraph where he refers to himself as a ‘fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.’ In such a way, he seeks to be recognized as a figure in authority pursuing the same objectives as his critics.

Pathos. The letter starts with pathos in the very first sentence where King states that he is in the Birmingham jail. This may be perceived as an attempt to evoke sympathy, but it is more emphasis on his involvement in the predicaments that were being lamented on by his critics. As someone who had experienced being in a Birmingham jail, his position on the whole issue of protests and justice could be more trusted since he was not merely ‘stirring trouble’ from a distance. In the fourth paragraph, he also argues for the protest by stating that injustice in one place is injustice everywhere. Thus, despite not being a resident of Birmingham, he still owed it to himself and the world to fight against the injustice there. To justify the need for a protest in Birmingham, King then speaks of a broken promise where he labels the human rights organization and the people in Birmingham as well as himself as the ‘victims of a broken promise.’ Here, he also earns sympathy from the audience and gets them to see his side of the story. The letter continues to engage pathos in many other instances including in the last paragraph where he speaks of misunderstanding and prejudice as well as fear and other emotions that seem to cloud the judgment of the clergymen. Pathos is primarily the most used appeal in this letter.

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Rogerian Discussion. A Rogerian argument is often based on calm reasoning that appeals to common sense and eventually succeeds in converting the audience to believe in what the author is saying. This letter is probably the best example of a Rogerian argument based on how it is structured and worded. King engages the audience by recognizing their authority and accepting their concerns as genuine and understandable based on the circumstances. Throughout the letter, he avoids open confrontations and accusations but rather builds his argument on the criticisms and emotions of the audience. As a result, he presents his case using the audience’s case as the foundation thus answering all of their concerns while also appealing to their emotions. In the end, King provides answers to all the raised questions and leaves his audience satisfied and effectively convinced.


King is one of the most proficient writers and speakers of all time. In “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” his work is particularly impressive considering how he manages to appeal to the audience using rhetoric techniques that distinguish him as a persuasive and eloquent orator. In the letter, King is particularly successful in using ethos, pathos, and logos considering how convincing his arguments are and how well they are delivered. As to the Rogerian argument, this piece of writing is the perfect example of a reasonable appeal to sense using calm arguments and emotions while avoiding confrontations and accusations that could alienate the audience.

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