The Use of Ethos in Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail

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Martin Luther King's Use of Argumentative Writing Techniques

Martin Luther King (MLKJ) wrote a letter during his stay in a Birmingham jail when he was arrested for civil rights campaign. The letter was in response to criticism directed to him and his campaign. In this letter, MLKJ uses argumentative writing techniques to persuade his critics on the validity of his ideas. He applies ethos, pathos, and logos in conveying his message in an attempt to justify his arguments. This paper shall review the instances he used argumentative writing and how the techniques strengthened his arguments. The paper shall conclude by identifying the strongest mode of persuasion with reasons for selection.


Ethos refers to use word choice, tone, and style to convey an argument in an ethically appealing way and build personal confidence as an authority on a topic. A person's character and lived experience help demonstrate the person's authority over a subject and build readers' trust on the person. Trust and ethical appeal then become essential in persuading readers towards acceptance of a given argument.

MLKJ quoted religious leaders on their comment that unjust law is equivalent to no law (Mott 408). He demonstrated his understanding and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding early Christianity. MLKJ proceeded to compare himself and his situation to Paul's response to Macedonian (212), implying that he is on a spiritual mission too. The reference to Paul also seeks to build trust among Christians and therefore promote acceptance of his ideologies. He further displays his character as a caring human being when he laments that privileged groups seldom relinquish the privileges willingly. MLKJ explains that ethical practices among the privileged are questionable in a society that does not seek to protect the less privileged. The privileged groups are likely to take advantage of the less privileged groups and thereby create a wider gap between the two groups. The use of ethos is also evident when MLKJ creates a sense of fairness and open-mindedness by quoting his dissenters. The words from his dissenters give readers an opportunity to reflect on both sides of the argument and make an informed judgment.


Logos is a convincing technique that appeals to reasoning. It involves a presentation of logical relationships between arguments and providing a reasoning for a specific position. MLKJ appeals to logic when he justifies that the stumbling block towards freedom of the Negros is the white moderate's emphasis on order rather than justice (Mott 410). His reasoning identifies the fact that failure to recognize law and order as a pillar of establishing justice has led to segregation and tension in the south. He cautions that failure to address the source of inequality and segregation will lead to violence. Logos is also demonstrated in MLKJ's advice to Negros on acceptance of indignities of segregation. The advice clarifies on "passive acceptance" of injustice towards Negros as denial of "dignity and worth" of Negros as human beings. This emphasis on dignity and worth shed light on the fact that injustice is perpetrated in ways that require logic to decipher. Another appeal to logic is implicitly evident when MLKJ quotes an illiterate elderly woman. MLKJ uses the elderly woman's words to demonstrate the fact that the uneducated are also aware of the extent of segregation and injustice in their society. A person does not need to be educated to sense and live the injustices perpetrated against Negros. Additionally, in quoting the uneducated elderly woman, he appeals to emotions of sympathy; the old woman is tired and still has to endure the march to fight for justice, which should be readily availed to her.


Pathos refers to an appeal to emotions. People respond to personalities and evoked emotions in arguments. Readers experience how a writer feels based on the writer's personal narrative of his/her feelings and circumstances that arouse emotions. MLKJ uses this strategy in his letter to invite readers to understand, experience, and feel the day-to-day lives of Negros under the unjust discriminatory laws. Through the use of his indirect language, the audience experiences the particular occurrences and therefore, feels the specific emotions resulting from segregation that pushed MLKJ to protest. The mention of mothers and fathers being lynched and sisters and brothers being drowned evokes strong emotions that readers have with their close relatives. Readers feel the pain of having their loved ones suffer and therefore consider their stand in the argument at hand.

Pathos technique also comes out strongly when MLKJ narrates how difficult it is for a father to explain to his six-year-old why she cannot get a chance to play in the public amusement park advertised on television (Mott 409). Emotions come into play as MLKJ explains how tearful the daughter is upon being informed that the amusement park does not allow Negro children. Metaphorical language prompts and invites readers into a journey of associative steps between particular communal experiences and other less known experiences. The shared communal experience and its related emotions are then shifted to a distinct experience from the other dominions of experience. The letter concludes with a lengthy metaphor about a rainstorm to provide a transition of readers' emotions from a symbolism of dark clouded racial discrimination, fear-drenched societies, and fog of misinterpretation, to the optimism that he feels is conceivable through peace and justice. Using the relation of a ceasing rainstorm with the winding up of unjust life, MLKJ shows optimism that non-minorities will start to see the sensitive feeling of escaping the pains and discomfort of segregation. The repetitive language also makes an emotional influence on MLKJ's arguments by creating emphasis on particular points. MLKJ builds an emotional momentum in his repetitions on extremism in reference to Jesus, Amos, and Paul (Mott 411).


A strong argument combines ethos, pathos, and logos techniques of persuasion. However, depending on the target audience, one technique may be more convincing than others. All factors held constant, pathos technique is more persuasive than ethos and logos. Pathos is dominant because all human beings have an emotional component that can be triggered to influence decisions and choices. On the other hand, use of logical reasoning in logos may not be applicable to everyone because of difference in levels of understanding for certain logics among different people. Ethical standards vary from society to society and therefore convincing a large audience using ethos may not be achievable. MLKJ's use of pathos arouses emotions of a large section of his readers because every human being has an emotional side that tends to protect his/her loved ones. The emotional element of a human being is vulnerable to easy manipulation and convincing in support of a particular way of thinking. In conclusion, an argument using pathos argumentative technique will likely win, although a combination of the all the techniques is essential for a concrete argument.

Work Cited

Mott, Wesley T. "The Rhetoric Of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter From Birmingham Jail". Phylon (1960-), vol 36, no. 4, 1975, p. 411. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/274640.

December 12, 2023
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