In 1963, after a protest in Birmingham calling attention to the need for equal rights for African Americans, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an open letter to the coalition of Christian ministers in the American South. Dr. King found himself the subject of extreme criticism from his fellow clergymen for his protest, specifically the illegality of the protest. In his essay, Dr. King attempts to appeal to the ethical, emotional and logical sides of countrymen to show them that the laws that he was breaking were unfair and unjust in and of themselves. This paper will critically examine the appeals that Dr. King made and the effectiveness of those appeals.
Dr. King begins his argument in favor of his actions with an appeal to the ethical considerations of his audience. “Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms,” (King 1963). He begins by telling his audience that he respects their motives and hopes that they will respect his.
This is an important part of the ethical argument in that King wants immediately to establish that this was not a rash action and that he is not defending himself lightly. Next, he seeks to establish his own credentials and his right to be in Birmingham. King mentions that people in Birmingham have complained of his coming in as an outsider and he immediately wants to clarify that he was invited 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” (King 1963)
By first establishing that his organization has ties in Birmingham and that he was invited, King dismisses the idea that he is just an outside rebel rouser. After establishing his right to be there, king establishes the authority under which his ethical decisions will be made. “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,” (King 1963). King calls to mind the ethical standard by which he wants to be judged: the Bible and his faith. Finally, King argues why his action is ethically justified.
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” (King 1963). With this argument he points out the ethical concern that most directly led to the Birmingham protest, injustice.
King also appeals to the emotions of his audience. “Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs.” (King 1963). He begins by gently reminding them of the racial humiliation that was an integral part of the South at the time. Next, he moves onto the violence that the average African American in the South had witness or heard. And finally, he moves on to the emotional appeal of children, before turning the emotionally-charged words filled with hatred and familiar to all Southern “Negroes”.
“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 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 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.”; (King 1963)
Throughout the essay, king also appeals to the logic of his audience. First, he points out that Southern blacks had attempted to sue the system, but that the system excluded them from it and therefore they could not change the system from within. Then, King begins to use statistics to back up his arguments, beginning first with the sheer lack of black voters in the South. “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.” (King 1963). King also argues that unjust laws or just laws which are unjustly enforced must be changed and that people should take whatever action is reasonable to change them. By providing specific examples, he makes it hard for any logical person to disagree.
Though King’s “I have a dream” speech is more famous than his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, it is in this essay that he sets the tone for the entire civil rights movement. In his use of emotional appeal, he moves beyond sheer anger to the disappointment and pain caused by segregation. His logical arguments are made soundly so that opponents cannot argue that he is simply hot-headed or breaking the law for the sake of personal gain. However, perhaps the most important and effective of his arguments come in his ethical arguments. When King illustrates gently, but with great strength, the unethical behavior that has led to the crisis in the South, he is non-accusatory and simply states how things ought to be. This above all else is what marks the greatness of this essay.