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When making a rhetorical argument, an author can strengthen their argument by utilizing the rhetorical styles of ethos, pathos, and logos.


Ethos describes any proof that builds the credibility, character, and reputation of the author.


Logos describes any proof that appeals to logic and/or reason.


Pathos describes any proof that appeals to the emotions of the audience.


Martin Luther King, in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” constructs an argument in a response to a literary publication written by eight clergymen in Alabama. These men accused Dr. King of staging demonstrations which were “‘unwise and untimely’.” Dr. King’s response to their accusations asserts the reasons and intentions behind his actions and the actions of his supporters, as well as stating his dedication to the cause of fighting for racial justice.



Initially, Dr. King establishes his credibility as an individual who is knowledgeable about the topics he discusses:


“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." 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. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.


But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”


This passage establishes credibility specifically with his white audience. The true reason why he is in Birmingham, as he goes on to say, is because of the racial injustices that are occurring there. But, because the racial injustice is the primary issue of debate between himself and the eight clergymen he is responding to, he tries to relate to them on their level and attempts to justify himself to their standards. King goes on to relate himself to his cause of fighting for racial justice. He depicts himself as a fighter for freedom, comparing himself to others before him who have been recognized and celebrated for a similar cause and similar courses of action. This comparison can be understood and sympathized with by an audience of any race, which further helps to achieve King’s goal of uniting a racially diverse population.




“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; 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; 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?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; 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.”


Although the clergymen denigrated the actions and demonstrations led by MLK, they most likely do not truly understand the violent, unjust actions of law enforcement agents and white politicians of which they are simultaneously defending. Dr. King tries in this passage to candidly express specific instances of oppression, violence, and discrimination that black people experienced ever day. The frank tone and vivid descriptions appeal to the emotion of his audience and help Dr. King to gain sympathy for his cause.




“Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”


Here, MLK presents a logical argument to distinguish between just and unjust laws. He basically invalidates practically every law in the state of Alabama because of its failure to adhere to the workings of a democratic society. As the United States is supposed to be a democratic nation, states are supposed to hold democratic elections to elect state officials who then make the state laws. If the state officials are not elected democratically, because not everyone who wanted to vote was allowed to vote, then the laws are only set in place by the majority power. The laws were not agreed to by a true majority and therefore, should not be enforced on every individual. This argument is made using facts and logic and strengthens the logos of Dr. King’s argument.



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