Breaking Laws in the Interest of Justice: Use of Persuasion in Pursuit of Equality

Martin Luther King had been one of the most renowned non-violent civil rights activists for centuries. He used the non-violent protests in an attempt to free the African Americans from the chains of racism. Therefore, Martin Luther King Jnr. wrote a letter from the confines of the prison in Birmingham as a way of pushing the government to guarantee equality to all the people in America. King had been arrested for challenging the Jim Crow laws which were aimed at facilitating racial prejudice towards certain communities in America, in particular the African Americans. One of the key tools used in the letter to persuade the audience is the manner in which Martin King Jr. uses language to persuade the readers. The use of the ethos, pathos and logos were some of his rhetorical strategies in directing the attention of all people towards the achievement of racial equality in the United States of America. These tools assist in generating certainty in the minds of the uncertain readers towards his mission. The use of the ethos depicts Martin Luther King Jr. as a person of integrity, high moral spectrum and a very high sense in the articulation of the raised issues. Therefore, the essence of this ethos was to instill trust and respect in his audience. King also uses pathos to appeal to the emotions of his audience in an attempt to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue at hand. The paper analyses the use of the ethos, logos and pathos by Martin Luther King in persuading his audience regarding the need to disrespect the law.

The Use of Ethos

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” contains a very strong message by Martin Luther King aimed at invoking the pity and mercy of the audience to join him in the fight against racial oppression despite being locked up in prison. The letter addresses several concerns. First, King states that it is not his duty as an outsider of the city to interfere with the affairs in the Birmingham city. King made this statement as an acknowledgement of the fact that even though he had never had a permanent residence in the City of Birmingham, he had never been limited in any way in his struggle to free the African Americans from oppression. He allowed his audience to notice that he had declared himself a sacrificial lamb for their benefit. One of the things that made him fight for justice in the City of Birmingham and be perceived as a person with strong ethos is the fact that he was the head of the South Christian Leadership Conference as the president at the national level and that he was invited by the chapter in Alabama. In this regard, he compared himself to the Biblical apostle Paul who was dedicated towards fighting for Christ beyond his town, saying:

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. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

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 He therefore believed that in order to end injustice and racial prejudice caused by the Whites through the Jim Crow laws, he needed to work beyond borders, which was the essence of his fight in Birmingham. King also let his audience realize that any injustice committed in any place was equivalent to an injustice committed everywhere. Therefore, the fight for justice in his opinion had no boundaries.  All these arguments go a long way in establishing his ethos as a firm man with an indisputable character and therefore his opinion should not be taken lightly. The letter should therefore be given a great consideration based on the established character of Martin Luther King.         

The Use of Pathos in Martin Luther King’s Letter

King uses his letter to reply to the critics who believe that his mode of addressing issues through demonstrations is ineffective. This resulted in his arrest and subsequent detainment for organizing demonstrations against the anti-segregation laws without permission. Through his letter, however, King replied that it was inevitable for him not to use demonstrations in addressing the segregation issues because Birmingham by itself had most of its structures based on the systems created by Whites during the oppression of the Blacks. Furthermore, the Blacks were forced to attend different schools, hospitals, and even restaurants together with the Whites. The political leaders were no longer ready to calmly negotiate on issues concerning the Black community so that the African Americans faced a lot of racism even from the local merchants. Furthermore, King appealed to the pathos by invoking the feeling of the people through reasoning. He said that his group and church members had taken several steps to ensure that their fight for justice was non-violent. First, King argued that the confirmation and review of facts before engaging in any protest was the key step on the list. Secondly, King argued that dialogue was a priority number two on his list. He argued that consultation amongst major stakeholders like the business leaders and politicians was also important for the implementation of the non-violent strategies aimed at ending segregation. Thirdly, Luther and his group believed in the need for self-purification and the acquisition of more knowledge on the issue to assist in the execution of their non-violent campaigns against the segregation in the United States of America. In this regard, the essence of King’s arguments was actually to create a lot of tension causing no harm to the people as a way of dramatizing racial issues for proper intervention. According to King, the use of the non-violent means would assist in creating tension necessary to secure a dialogue with the concerned individuals. 

Critics to Martin Luther King Jr.

 Critics further argue that the Blacks should not force equality when the society is not ready for it. They are of the opinion that the society is progressive in nature and that at some point equality will be achieved. It is this argument that makes Martin Luther King appeal to the feelings of the people to disagree with it. He argues that an oppressor can never grant freedom in a voluntary manner, but rather it has to be fought for. King in the letter acknowledged that the Black community has for a very long time suffered from racial attitudes of the Whites with nothing being done to improve the situation; they had therefore become too impatient because equality took too long to arrive.

The question of forcing the occurrence of an issue which involves social justice is also inciting violence regardless of the fact that the peaceful nature of the agitation was also another criticism to be addressed by Martin Luther King. To address this issue, King came up with two letters which he called the letters of disappointment both for the Black and White community. He mentioned that at the core of these groups was cowardice and hypocrisy. One group of hypocrites involves those who hold the idea that peaceful actions lead to violence and the other one includes those who believe that the doings of good people do not matter. Good people must therefore be engaged in the fight for justice regardless of the price. He therefore called for the non-violent demonstrations as an example of an action in which good people may take part to ensure justice in the society. 

Martin Luther King also faced criticism because the use of demonstrations as a way of a direct political action is equivalent to extremism in the United States of America. In this respect, therefore, he created two groups to assist him in the explanation of his actions.

Summary of the Proposition for the Disrespect of the Law, the Analysis of the Logos in His Arguments

The core part of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” comprises of the need to disrespect the law. To summarize it, the following arguments are part of the justifications for the disrespect of the law by King. First, King argued that there was a moral justification in disobeying laws, which aim at creating segregation. Secondly, King said that there were two categories of laws, just and unjust. Human beings therefore only have a duty of respecting the just laws but not the unjust ones. Whatever makes a difference between the just and unjust laws is therefore the human personality, which is evaluated in terms of whether the laws lead to the degradation or progress of the human personality. Furthermore, laws according to which minorities do not take part in their enactment should not be respected. King also relied on St. Augustine’s argument that the unjust laws are not laws at all. The 1954 ruling by the Supreme Court, which granted equality to all the rest, forms a key basis of King’s arguments to disrespect the law as he felt that no law could override the constitutional provision. Another reason for disobedience to the law is the fact that some laws are only fair on the face of it but discriminatory in nature and thus do not respect the personality of human beings. King lastly summarized his argument by saying that the Bible is another example of the act of civil disobedience, this arises from the story of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego disobedience to King Nebuchadnezzar’s laws, which were oppressive for the people. In this regard, King summarized his argument about disobeying the law by stating that there exists a high moral order with which every individual has a duty of respect. If any law is against the moral order, human beings have no duty of respect to such a law. The following section therefore goes ahead in discussing the justifications for disrespect of the law

Justifications for the Disrespect of the Law

The above initial illustration for the appeal to the ethos and pathos by Martin Luther King leads us to the understanding of why Martin Luther in his letter believes that breaking of laws is the only solution to ending the segregation. First, King made a premise for moral justification in his argument. According to Martin Luther King, there is a moral a justification in breaking laws for the sake of creating justice in the society. The ultimate goal of having laws in the society is to create an orderly and just society where equality is respected by all people. Martin Luther King in this scenario made a difference by saying that there are two kinds of laws which must be treated in a different manner. The first set of laws is the just laws while the second set of laws is the unjust laws. The just laws should be respected while in case of the latter, no human being has a responsibility of respecting them. King’s conclusion regarding the disrespect of the unjust laws arises from the premise that there is a moral duty to be fulfilled. In this regard, King summarizes his argument thus:

Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.

A law that degrades human personality should be disobeyed

In terms of this argument, King made a premise of human personality as a standard upon which to consider disobeying laws. A human being has a responsibility to respect only those laws that respect the personality of human beings. He said that laws should be disrespected if they degrade the human personality. One of the assumptions made by King is that it is better for him to violate a law that requires him to have a permit to make demonstrations rather than violate the constitutional provision which requires the respect for the rights and fundamental freedoms under the first amendment of the US Constitution. He later made a conclusion that no law may be considered democratic if the minorities do not take part in its enactment or if discriminatory practices are likely to occur. In this conclusion, King uses the evidence of the respect to fundamental rights and freedoms as the source of human personality. Therefore, any law that breaches the constitutional provisions, which guarantee the rights, undermine human personality and should not be respected. 

Unjust laws are not law at all 

Such a proclamation therefore means that, human beings have no duty of obedience towards them. King further justifies his claim by stating that a law becomes unjust if it is not in line with God or natural law. In his sentiments, for example, Thomas Aquinas further stated that an unjust law is the one which is not grounded on natural law. King therefore concluded that any law whose essence is to uplift the human personality is just and consequently, the law that degrades the personality of human beings is unjust. It is for this reason that King argues that he has no duty of obedience towards the laws in the United States because they are grounded on discrimination and segregation. Discrimination based on race tortures one’s personality and therefore the respect for such laws would means consenting to being tortured by the oppressor. King argues that in this case, the segregator acquires a false and unjustified sense of superiority based on the discriminatory law while the oppressed individual acquires a false sense of inferiority as well. King made a conclusion that respecting unjust laws is similar to giving the oppressor the power to intimidate the oppressed, which is against the moral order found in natural law. The conclusion is reached through the evidence provided in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. The argument is therefore very logical in convincing the audience.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling as a basis for legal disobedience

King’s argument is also premised on the fact that the Constitution is supreme to any ordinance. He therefore justified his reasoning for the defiance against the unjust laws which are based on segregation on the basis of the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed segregation in all schools. In addition, King was of the idea that segregation not only causes social, economic and political turmoil but is sinful in its very nature. King’s conclusion to disobey other laws derives from his move to respect the 1954 Supreme Court decision and that is why he said it is better for him to respect a constitutional provision as held by the court and disobey any laws or amendments, which seek to curtail these rights. The argument is therefore very sound in convincing the audience to embrace civil disobedience.   

Unjust laws are forced on the people and thus should not be respected 

Another reason given by King regarding the disobedience of laws is the fact that, as much as the minority is always the largest in number, the unjust laws are always forced upon them because they are not binding in nature. The argument is premised on the fact that if a law is just, the minority is always willing to follow and therefore there is no need for coercion to be imposed on them. The laws whose intentions are to facilitate racism cannot by any measure be just and therefore no human being has a duty of respecting them. It is for this reason that King was determined to fight for the eradication and amendment of such laws by all means. In another example, unjust laws are the ones in which their enactment is devoid of participation of the minority. When the laws are only dictated by the interests of the majority, the minority has no choice rather than disrespecting them. For example, King brought this point using Alabama as an example:

Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?

In this respect, King made a conclusion that the law resulting from such a process is subject to defiance on behalf of the minority. Without direct participation in elections, there can be no democracy. The argument is therefore sound in convincing the people that civil disobedience is justified.

Laws that are only fair on the face but not in application should not be respected

In another scenario, the people also have no duty of adhering to a law which is only just and fair on its face but not in application. King made a premise that some laws assist in creating order by demanding a timeline to seek authority for any parade. For example, in the case of Martin Luther King’s arrest, the law that allowed for the acquisition of the permits, seemed fair on the face of it, but arrest of King after the defiance of the law seemed unfair and unjust. King was fighting for the protection of the constitutionally recognized rights, but ended up being arrested and subjected to imprisonment. He however made a conclusion based on the above evidence that to the extent that the law curtails the fundamental freedom of others and ceases to be fair being subject to disrespect. This reasoning justifies the need for the disobedience of the law and is thus convincing to the audience.

Biblical Justification for Disrespect of the Law

King further uses the Bible for the justification of civil disobedience, or law breaking. King’s premise for this argument is based on the story of Meshach, Abednego and Shadrack who defied the laws which were established by King Nebuchadnezzar who pursued his own interests. King therefore said that the reason for the disobedience consisted in a moral order that superseded Nebuchadnezzar’s laws. The early form of disobedience to these kinds of laws was witnessed by the three people vowing to be thrown in a den of lions or even a furnace of fire as part of their move to reject the laws by Nebuchadnezzar. Furthermore, such early philosophers as Socrates, who was against interference with his academic work, had to defy certain laws for the scholars to enjoy academic freedom. The issue of disobedience to the law is therefore not a new one but the one that has existed for a very long time. Based on the above reasons, King made a conclusion that respect for the law lies in the morality whereby, there is need for the obedience of the high moral order rather than the worldly laws. 

Analysis of King’s Use of Ethos, Pathos and Logos

The manner in which “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is written by Martin Luther King addresses the justifications for his demonstrations in Birmingham city despite not having a residence there. Through an emotional appeal, King expressed his disappointment with the Church in Birmingham for keeping quiet despite the oppression. He also condemned the White community in Birmingham for the segregation. The most emotional part of the letter, however, is where King stated that there is no other time in history when he has ever written a very long letter such as the one he wrote to Birmingham. He said that the reason for this is because he had all the time to do it within the confines of the prison. He condemned the silence of good people as a way of accepting oppression. This is because he felt that some people feared the tension over what they termed could lead to violence, which was not the case. The whole idea however is based on the disrespect of the law. The premises established by Martin Luther King were backed up with facts and reasoning to give meaningful conclusions and convince his readers that he indeed had sacrificed his life for the freedom of the Blacks and that the people were liable to break the law. Therefore, there is no better way that King could have written the letter other than the way it is written.


“Letter from Birmingham Jail” addresses the reasons behind the civil disobedience by Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham and the persuasion of the whole community to stand up for the equality of the African Americans by disobeying the law. King justified his reasons by stating that there is only a high moral order that requires the human beings to obey it and not any other law which contradicts it. He also pointed to the fact that the decision of the Supreme Court to end segregation in schools must be respected and that he could not justify a law that contradicts the same to prevail. Furthermore, King quoted the Bible and used the examples of Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego’s defiance to King Nebuchadnezzar’s laws as a justification for the disobedience of the segregation ordinances. The way of his appeal that establishes his character as a person who is selfless and ready to fight for equality despite the boundaries makes his letter very persuasive. The letter is therefore good as it is and there is no other better way it could have been written.

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