King, Jr. “Letter From Birmingham Jail”

Rhetorically, there is so much going on in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that I could talk for days about this topic. However, for the sake of time, I am only going to point out a few of the rhetorical strategies that King uses in the text.

Rhetorical Analysis of the Three Appeals

I often use “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to teach the appeals in my First Year Composition class. Almost every sentence in the letter can be connected to one of the appeals. This is a great way to get students to see the value of the appeals, but it also speaks to the importance of the appeals in written and oral discourse.King’s incorporation of the appeals is masterful. Here are a few examples:


I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.

King presents his ethos masterfully in these sentences. His letter is written in response to the Alabama clergy who object to King protesting in Birmingham. They present him as an outsider in the letter, but demonstrating his ethos, King presents himself as an insider. He is not just a man who chose to protest in an outside community, but is the president of the Conference. He is a clergyman speaking to other clergymen, but also part of an organization that has a chapter in their state.

Other forms of ethos in the letter

  • King also connects himself to the Apostle Paul and the Prophets who carried the gospels to neighboring villages. King uses this connection to further justify his actions.
  • King also demonstrates his religious ethos by tracing his own heritage of ministerial ancestors and discussing his own church leadership.
  • King refers to educated examples throughout history that demonstrate a need for action. Some of these are well known examples (such as Hitler) while others are less well known (Martin Buber and Paul Tillich). His examples are both new (Tillich and Buber) and ancient (Socrates) which demonstrates the breadth of his education.


I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

King’s presentation of the logos here is brilliant. He shows the clergymen the two sides of the community, the one of complacency and the other of bitterness and hatred. In this statement he does not literally justify his motives, but rather puts the facts on the table so the audience can see that his response was the best possible. King is implying here that he could have remained neutral and allowed the black nationalist groups to take charge of the situation, but he did not.

Logos is present throughout King’s letter and this is expected since his letter is a justification of his actions. I will not dwell on further examples here, because there is much more to say.


On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

King connects his audience to his pathos by using several examples of the church as a source of pathos and making them them look closely at the symbolism of the church and the hatred that it helped to promote. He forces the audience (through the rhetorical questions) to look at exactly what their white churches symbolize and the incongruous manner in which they treat the African-American. At the same time, King makes them see this entire situation from his point of view.


Another rhetorical way of looking at King’s speech is through the Bakhtinian lens of dialogism. A dialogic text is one that carries on a conversation with another text or work of literature. This is quite apparent reading King’s speech alone. We can see readily in several places that he is talking to another work:

I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme
You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.”

Each of these statements reflects a statement made by the clergymen who wrote the letter that motivated King to respond. King acknowledges each of these points from the original letter in his letter and then provides his own refutation to these statements. This is the dialogism between the two letters. (The full text of the original letter can be found by following the link to King’s speech in the “Historical etexts” section to the right).

There are also other statements made in the letter that indicate King is dialoging with another text. These include:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”

The original letter reads: “We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens directed and led in part by outsiders.”

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham

Twice during the original letter, the clergymen discuss their feelings against the demonstrations. First, they “do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.” Their belief here leads them, as they close the letter, to “strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham”

Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?”

This statement does not come directly from the letter King is responding to, but he is still in a dialogue here. He makes it clear that this statement is not from the clergymen, but from others who support the clergymen’s argument.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

This last statement is dialogism in a different sense. This relates to Bakhtin’s argument (in “The Problem with Speech Genres“) that all utterances are a form of dialogism as they respond to previous arguments and consider the audience’s response as they are constructed. Though this is a written form, we can see Dr. King already responding to another form of the clergy’s argument, but one he has not heard yet.

King and Thoreau

Another connection that I want to make about King’s speech is that it demonstrates Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as an influence on King’s actions.

In his autobiography, King writes:

“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice” (14).

King did not plan to be responsible for initiating the movement’s  actions in the beginning, but became a part of the Civil Rights Movement as an individual. His decision to protest on an individual basis is Thoreau’s thesis in action.

About smartykatt

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University where I specialize in rhetoric, composition, digital literacy, and information literacy. My research focuses on the intersections of student engagement with digital and information literacy and their relation to student research and writing. I am an ACES Fellow at Lamar and, with Janice Walker (Georgia Southern), I am a Principal Investigator on the LILAC Project.

Posted on January 2, 2009, in Exams, Historical Rhetoric and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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