Rhetorical Analysis Example: King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the letter in a persuasive tone, which appeals to stand against racial inequality. The target audience consists of racist white supremacists and those who are victims. King uses various instances of ethos to show his credibility to readers. He introduces himself formally and then links himself to historical figures. King also makes good use of pathos to trigger the emotions of readers. He shows some prevalent forms of racism and presents possible consequences in case of failure to reform the system. In turn, King uses logos to justify his actions. He gives multiple reasons that demystify the real meaning of Just and Unjust Laws. The overview of rhetoric appeals, along with King’s ability to pursue the crowd, makes this rhetorical analysis example of MLK’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” stand out among others.


“Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, describes a protest against his arrest for non-violent resistance to racism. In the letter, King appeals for unity against racism in society, while he wants to fight for Human Rights, using ethos. Similarly, King uses pathos to trigger the emotional aspect of readers and pursues his audience to take real actions. Moreover, King uses various logical explanations to make clear his position and the reasons to fight against white supremacy. The letter is reflective in tone and serves to catch both suppressed people and those who are exploiting them. Thus, this rhetorical analysis example of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” reveals King’s literary skills and his passion to perceive equality, which he accomplishes by using ethos, pathos, and logos, avoiding logical fallacies above all.

rhetorical analysis example

Summary of King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

In his rhetorical piece “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King writes to clergymen and share personal views on his position and racial issues in society. Basically, King is in jail because of his visions on how people should live to develop a normal community. However, clergymen provided their criticism of King’s actions and methods of achieving a common good, stating that he was wrong. In turn, King responds to clergymen’s claims by providing many arguments that support his side. He focuses on moral, emotional, logical, valid, and credible reasons for a justification of his actions and goals. King does not write that clergymen are wrong, but he thinks that the government should be more active in forming positive conditions for people of all races. As a result, King ends his letter claiming that he is just a human, like everyone, who wants to develop a better society for all. By considering this summary of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King becomes a legendary person since his arguments on racial segregation touches not only clergymen but also others who want to live in a peaceful and equal society.


The use of ethos in the letter is very influential. King’s introduction of the letter is the first instance of the use of ethos. King (1963) states that he earned the title of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s President and could operate in every Southern State of the US country. Here, King creates a moral connection with readers and establishes himself as a man with authority. The use of words, like ‘president’ and ‘every,’ describes the status of the organization as trustworthy and credible, making ethos appeal stronger.

How to Pursue Credibility

King was a remarkable speaker and knew the perfect combination of rhetorical devices for persuading his audience. In the letter, he references many notable personalities in order to set a basis for the aim of his writing. For instance, King (1963) compares himself to Apostle Paul, who set out on a journey to convey the message of Christianity all over Greece and Roman. However, the story of Paul is not the only influencing factor that King uses in his letter. King (1963) also specifies various prominent personalities, like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, John Bunyan, Martin Luther, and even Jesus Christ, in his letter. Moreover, King distinctively pursues his audience into believing that he wants to create a revolutionary change. This anticipated change is big enough to make it into history books and influencing enough to get recognized by many people.

Validity of Claims

References to such instantly recognizable characters are excellent examples of ethos in this literary work. King seems to understand that his whole argument and appeal are weaker. If King (1963) is not able to provide a substantial threshold for the revolution, he is conjuring. So, King’s usage of such historical elements in order to create a comparable point for his credibility. His intention is very exquisite, while obvious appeals can serve as a good example because they can draw an analogy and analyze their works much better too.


King makes the situation of human rights clear. He was jailed on the grounds of the ‘violation of court injunction’ during his 1963 protest against racism in Birmingham. Moreover, he was put in solitary confinement by different authorities. He even denied his rights to the phone call (Snyder, 2013). Additionally, King provokes serious emotions in readers. For example, as a protest against this direct abduction of basic Human Rights by Birmingham Clergymen, King (1963) writes about such manipulative issues with law enforcement, using pathos. He acknowledges that the requirement of the permit is not an issue. In turn, King expected the intervention of authorities, given that he knew about the law.

Violation of Human Rights

King argues that the detention of members and the treatment given is against human rights. His statement was justifiable as the protest was non-violent, and police violated human rights (Snyder, 2013). Besides, this statement is an important message for the target audience. Furthermore, King (1963) stated that African Americans have waited for long to gain their human rights. The actions and the situation of racism was a direct violation of the law of a nation as well as the law of God. He clarifies that the lack of rights is against democracy and the constitution, while Blacks deserve the ‘God-given’ rights (King, 1963). Every democratic country provides its citizen with freedom of speech, given that the actions are not violating the legal limits. Nevertheless, King argues that the situation of human rights is contrary to the definition in the constitution.

Threat to Equality

King tries to persuade readers into knowing the extensity of this situation of human rights. According to King (1963), his presence in Birmingham meant that the situation of human rights was miserable there, and his arrest by local authorities proved his point. In the same way, he has also made extensive use of pathos against white supremacy. In his appeal to Blacks to fight against racism, King (1963) writes about the life of African Americans, highlighting poverty and mistreatment. Blacks are not given the most privileges and state the backwardness of them as a consequence. Hence, this statement exclusively appeals to Blacks in an emotional aspect. The use of pathos in the rhetorical analysis example can easily help people to understand the concept of emotional appeals.


The letter includes different logical explanations. King, being an influential speaker, has added a lot of rational appeals to his work. One of the logic in his letter is his argument on the definition of ‘unjust’ law. King (1963) provides a definition of such laws and examples of how they are enforced, using common logic to decipher how discrimination exists in society, without encountering any logical fallacies. He uses the example of just and unjust laws. According to him, the law that people must follow and the law that is used to arrest him are different, and it is simply a form of ‘unjust law’ in action.

White Supremacy

As a result, the majority of white supremacy define the law with their advantage in mind. Furthermore, King (1963) states that it is a bad thing that white supremacists leave Negroes with no other choice but to stand against them. In turn, whites discriminate against African Americans, treat them as the minority, and deny their basic rights granted by the constitution and by God himself. King (1963) justifies his presence in Birmingham by writing that he and his friends are “invited” to the prison, satirically highlighting the injustice. Moreover, King is very reflective in his letter, adding emotional appeals after logical ones to deliver needed messages. King made it clear that resistance appeared. There was no other way to eliminate the problem, and the rhetorical analysis example proved that the use of rhetorical appeals could help in delivering such a message.

Summing Up on MLK’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

In conclusion, the proper use of ethos, pathos, and logos, combined with a reflective tone and King’s passion, makes the letter stand out as an excellent piece of literature as well as a motivational message. Besides, King establishes himself as a man with trustworthiness by using ethos. He wants readers to know that he wants a change that is big enough for history. King uses emotional appeals to reflect the miserable situation of Human Rights and states that his presence in Birmingham Jail is desperation. Likewise, King makes excellent use of logos to justify the rogue status of the government. So, the letter is an appeal for those who want change and a warning for those who oppose it. In turn, this rhetorical analysis example summarized by analyzing King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” explains how one can use rhetorical strategies to enhance the message to people on the national level, bringing social change to life. Hence, this example can be a good rhetorical analysis sample for further learning on how to write such papers on any literary works.

For writing a rhetorical analysis, use this outline:


Fulkerson, R. P. (1979). The public letter as a rhetorical form: Structure, logic, and style in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65(2), 121-136. doi:10.1080/00335637909383465

King, M. L., Jr. (1963). The Negro is your brother. The Atlantic Monthly212(2), 78-88.

Snyder, J. A. (2013). Fifty Years Later: Letter From Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/112952/martin-luther-king-jrs-letter-birmingham-jail-fifty-years-later