On the one hand, King seems to direct his letter towards “Fellow Clergymen.” King directly answers the points brought by these clergymen about “outsiders,” his supposedly “unwise and untimely” actions, and general critique of demonstrations. On the other hand, I believe it is reasonable to suppose that answering clergy members was not the main or only purpose of this letter. It is difficult to expect immediate understanding and admitting of mistakes from people engaged in systemic segregation. Especially as King directly criticizes the church later in his letter. Therefore, the primary addressee of this letter, in my opinion, is King’s supporters and other Black people. The reason for that is that throughout his letter, King justifies and promotes the actions of his supporters, such as non-violent protests. Moreover, he describes the situations to which many Black people can relate (King). Therefore, the primary audience is King’s actual and potential supporters from the Black population.
King uses both ways of establishing ethos – he builds his own credibility on a topic, and he refers to the sources that his audience may believe to be credible. Regarding King’s references, he mentions “prophets of the eighth century” and Apostle Paul when he justifies his presence in Birmingham. Later in the letter, Reinhold Niebuhr – an American Reformed theologian, was referred by King to explain the pressure on the city’s new administration. Overall, it can be seen that King uses figures of religious and historical importance that are known among Christians and other Americans. Regarding King’s own credibility, he presents himself as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference president with “eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South.”
There are various moments across the letter when King appeals to his audience’s emotions. For instance, King describes the sufferings of Black people in a highly emotional way – “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” Moreover, he uses his children’s perspective to make the situation even more emotional – “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (King). King’s letter evokes emotions of bitterness and sorrow; it makes a reader want to do away with injustice; it inspires the reader to do something for the sake of his community.
King skillfully works with logic as he responds to the critique of his movement rationally and in a structured way. King explains step-by-step his logic behind just and unjust laws, the rationale behind the timings of demonstrations, the unacceptability of further waiting, the dangers of extremism, and the morality of means and ends. One of the most critical logically established points considers extremism, as King demonstrates what could be the results of continued oppression of their non-violent movement.
King establishes several points of difference – firstly, he looks at the laws from the perspective of morality and religion. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God; unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (King). King establishes that the difference between just and unjust laws is in attitudes towards people, and segregation is unjust as it is morally wrong. Secondly, King states that “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.” Therefore, King describes one of the basic principles of law – equality before the law; thus, those laws that are not based on equality before them are unjust. Finally, King points out that some laws may seem just but may be used in unfair ways, such as using a law requiring permission for parading to punish people protesting for equality.
King makes observations about Apostle Paul and the prophets of the eighth century – they “carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns.” Based on these actions, King establishes that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and sets a rule that it is necessary to battle injustice even if it is far away. This example is a part of King’s logic of his presence in Birmingham, and it does advance his argument from a moral point of view.
King demonstrates an example of deductive reasoning when he talks about the necessity for demonstrations. Firstly, the general rule is established – “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor” (King). Based on that rule King suggests that the same is to happen with the new city administration, despite the mayor’s replacement. Therefore, King decided to protest, as freedom “must be demanded by the oppressed.” The example appeals to historical experience, therefore strengthening the logical part of the argument with relevant facts.
I think that King had several goals; firstly, he wanted to justify the actions and the agenda of his movement and demonstrate that these actions were rightful and just all along. This was necessary to keep up the spirit of his supporters and demonstrate the movement’s attractiveness to his potential supporters. Secondly, he may have wanted to evoke emotions among sympathizers and other potential supporters to increase their chances of joining the movement. Finally, King warned the White population about extremist forces in Black communities; thus, persuading them to cooperate with his non-violent movement.
I believe that King’s overall argument is highly effective. Firstly, King knows his audience, and therefore he can use proper emotional, logical, and ethical appeals. Secondly, he masterly uses different persuasion tools throughout his letter. Thirdly, his letter is well structured and easy to read, as his flow of ideas and logic is clear.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” Grace Presbytery.