First, Martin Luther King Jr. establishes his credibility as an honorable and trustworthy man to effectively convince his audience of his moral and just actions. To begin his letter, he acknowledges the fact that the clergymen see him and his allies as “outsiders coming in” (King Jr. 1). However, he counteracts their false claim by introducing himself as “president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state” with “some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (King Jr. 1). By doing so, King Jr. puts himself in a position of authority to demonstrate to the clergymen that he is not just an average man trying to create chaos within the community, but instead is in Birmingham with a purpose. MLK Jr.’s role as a leader of a religious organization directly appeals to the clergymen and further adds to his credibility seeing as religious figures tend to be seen as moral and trustworthy. However, religion is not the only way in which he appeals to his audience. MLK Jr. establishes himself as an individual with an educated mind and moral values by referencing other sources in his letter, such as Socrates. By using figures that are not only biblical, King is able to relate to other groups of people in the audience and prevents alienation that could potentially backfire.
Additionally, Martin Luther King Jr. uses historical and biblical allusions to justify his actions and emphasize the difference between just and unjust laws. Although King does say that just laws should be obeyed, he also believes that the segregation of his people “distorts the soul and damages the personality,” making it an unjust law. In support of his argument, King states, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal” (King, Jr. 5). When King wrote his letter, the horror of concentration camps and the deadly prejudice against Jewish people was widely known; However, during Hitler’s time, those unjust laws could not be legally condemned because they were the laws imposed by Germany and therefore, could not be denied. By alluding to these tragic historical event, King forces the clergymen, along with the rest of his audience, to reflect on the current segregation debate and question its morality. Not only does King use historical allusions, but he also uses biblical allusions to further appeal to the clergymen. He says, ” 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…And John Bunyan?” (King, Jr. 7). By using these biblical figures as examples of extremists, King directly confronts the clergymen of their accusations of naming him one. However, since the clergymen look up to these figures, they cannot further argue against Martin Luther King, Jr. and his actions. After all, why would King not want to be an extremist if someone as honorable as Jesus was one?
Finally, and most importantly, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses pathos, another one of Aristotle’s classic appeals, to force the clergymen to step into the shoes of his people and quickly silence any criticism of his actions towards his fight to end segregation.