“Letter from Birmingham Jail” Rhetorical Analysis

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The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was important in the history of the civil rights movement. King Jr. was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement known for their selfless efforts to demand equal rights in the United States (Levy, 2019). The civil rights movement spearheaded the advances and needs of African Americans and the black community. According to Oppenheimer (1992), Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter when he was jailed, which was considered his major contribution to the Birmingham desegregation campaign. King Jr. was jailed for his role in the United States. The white clergymen condemned his role in the use of nonviolent resistance regarding racism issues and wanted him to use courts to push for his demands. The letter extensively uses pathos and anaphora as rhetorical devices as persuasive appeals to the audience.

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Use of Pathos

King Jr has extensively and effectively used pathos in his letter to appeal to his audience. According to Wróbel (2015), pathos is used as an emotional appeal that persuades the audience to evoke emotions and feelings the author wants to achieve. King Jr used pathos by pointing to personal perspectives of the situations that have occurred that would make the audience have some emotions over the same. The most evident aspect states, “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people” (King Jr, 1963). The phrase makes the audience feel sad, pitiful, and sympathize with the children and agree with King Jr’s stand regarding the matter and his argument.

The letter uses a deliberate choice of words intended to evoke emotions in the audience. Besides, King Jr uses meaningful language and literal analogies or stories that fit within his argument to evoke emotions, thereby persuading the audience to agree with his argument or stand. For instance, the letter states, “I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail” (King Jr, 1963). King Jr paints a scene in which an individual would picture the situation and imagine the inhumane treatment of African Americans. The emotions evoked would make them agree with King Jr’s stand or argument.

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Use of Anaphora

Another rhetorical device that King Jr uses in the letter is anaphora. King Jr intentionally chooses words as successive phrases and repeated clauses to emphasize his speech. The use of anaphora emphasizes the meaning and adds rhythm and emotions as a rhetorical style. For instance, uses repetition in the form of anaphora to add emotions of empathy. He states, “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed… I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment…if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women…if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them….” (King Jr, 1963). The repetition of ‘if you’ seek to evoke emotions in the readers to have empathy based on the situations he was presenting to agree with his argument.

King Jr was also keen on depicting his stand by using anaphora to add meaning to his word and emphasis. For instance, King Jr (1963) repeated the phrase ‘was not’ to lessen the word ‘extremist’ by pointing to historical figures. He states, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love:… Was not Amos an extremist for justice:… Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel:… Was not Martin Luther an extremist:… Was not John Bunyan an extremist….Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist…Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist…” (King Jr, 1963). He persuades the audience that he also makes the list of the extremist depending on what he will champion. He successfully convinces his audience to have a lessened stand on the word ‘extremist.’


King Jr’s letter uses various rhetorical devices in his writing. The incorporation of pathos and anaphora makes the letter effective in conveying the intended message. Pathos becomes more appealing to the audience’s emotions to resonate with the situation and agree with him. King Jr also uses anaphora to emphasize the weight of the statements, add emotions, and lessen the intensity of negative words. The culmination of pathos and anaphora makes “Letter from Birmingham Jail” very effective in how the whole matter would be interpreted to change the existing situation towards equality in the United States.

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  1. King Jr, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. California State University, Chico. 1-6. https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf
  2. Levy, P. B. (2019). The Civil Rights Movement: A Reference Guide. ABC-CLIO.
  3. Oppenheimer, D. B. (1992). Martin Luther King, Walker v. City of Birmingham, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail. UC Davis L. Rev.26, 791.
  4. Wróbel, S. (2015). Logos, Ethos, Pathos. Classical Rhetoric Revisited. Polish Sociological Review191(3), 401-421.
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