Civil Rights and the Effective Use of Rhetoric: “The Ballot or the Bullet” vs. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his infamous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from a jail cell on April 16, 1963, after being arrested by police in Birmingham, Alabama for participating and leading a protest without a permit. His letter is a call to nonviolent action in sharp contrast against the Black Muslims who are on the side of Malcom X. The letter is a direct response to a group of clergymen from Alabama calling for an end to protests in the street and demanding that “outsiders” take up their problems in the court system. This was problematic because of a racially biased court system that favored the bigots of Alabama at the time. Malcom X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech seems to be the opposite of Dr. King’s. The setting for his speech is in an election year, 1964. Congress had passed the Civil Rights Bill two months before Malcom X delivered this speech. Malcom X was appealing to black voters to make sure they cast their ballots. Many of King’s arguments are also logic based, as he uses an almost scientific method and states that there are four steps to a nonviolent campaign.1 King convincingly states that his method of nonviolent direct action is to create a tension that forces the community to confront discrimination.2 In contrast, Malcom X advocates violence, arguing that one can only use nonviolent methods against nonviolence. Convincingly, he makes the case that those denying civil rights would not be nonviolent. Though they have different goals, both men construct their argument and rhetoric in similar manners. They develop their arguments using logos and then reinforce those arguments with powerful appeals to emotion.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, meeting with Malcom X, right. Photo: Library of Congress

King frequently uses the Bible to reinforce his claims and ideas throughout the letter. In the opening lines, he dismisses the notion that he is an outsider. Here he is appealing to his own character to form the basis for his response. The rhetoric he uses equates himself to the Apostle Paul in the Bible, who carried the gospel of Jesus across the “far corners of the Greco-Roman world.”3 Throughout the letter he refers to Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and other famous theologians and philosophers. King uses these analogies to famous figures to increase the ethos in his argument. The most prevalent form of rhetoric he uses is pathos. He attempts to make several appeals to the emotions of the reader. One of the most infamous lines from the letter displays the pathos rhetoric, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”4 Here, King’s intended reader is the clergy for whom he has written a response. It is unlikely that he intends the audience to end here, given he was expecting several papers to publish his work. For this reason, his biblical references as a minister and his use of pathos are both warranted and expected. The foundation for his argument rests on what he perceives as the nonviolent history of Christianity, equating his movement with the extreme love of Jesus Christ.5 King sympathizes and understands the violent rhetoric of the Black Muslim movement, but sees himself as a wall between non-interventionists and extremists.

“…smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television…”

Excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
May 3, 1963 Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: 1963 AP

His use of pathos in his argument grows innately stronger when he writes about lynch mobs and those who have been “smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”6 While this might seem like too direct of an attack against those who take part in discrimination, he is driving a nail into the heart of the issue. To force people to change or affect change, they must first care. Painting an image of people being kicked, beaten, and drown, makes it difficult for anyone of sound mind to turn a blind eye. In particular, the rhetoric he uses involving the story of the five-year-old asking why “white people treat colored people so mean”, is heartbreaking.7 This anecdotal evidence characterizes how effective his rhetoric is, even today. King highlights his education by referencing the facts and statistics surrounding the discrimination in Alabama. He uses examples of unsolved bombings and the fact that Birmingham is the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.8

Malcom X uses a more aggressive underlying tone to express his grievances. Also absent in Malcom X’s speech are the religious connotations. Unlike King, Malcom X only references the religion of other civil rights activists and states that he is a Muslim. Beyond this he uses no examples of scripture, Islamic or Christian, to defend his point. As Malcom X points out, he preaches the gospel of black nationalism.9 He mentions religious leaders like Billy Graham, but he does not use scripture directly. This separates the tone of his work from that of Dr. King’s. Malcom X frequently uses pathos to connect his audience to the atrocities that are being perpetuated on black people. In some ways, Malcom X uses vicious imagery to a greater extent than King. One brief example is the analogy that “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood.”10 While King appeals more to biblical interpretations and the emotions of justice and nonviolence, Malcom X uses current political issues and facts to form his argument. He speaks of gerrymandering, which has been prevalent even today in the 21st century, and references biased committees in Washington, D.C. He lays out the statistics of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, noting that if they are such friends of the black cause, why have they not acted to protect them?11 Another prominent aspect of Malcom X’s speech is that he uses alliteration continuously though his speech. The most notable example is the phrase, “the ballot or the bullet.”12 He repeats this phrase several times throughout his presentation, making sure that people understand blacks are being given a binary choice in the situation that afflicts them.

Malcom X holds up a paper during a Black Muslim rally in New York City on Aug. 6, 1963. Photo: 1963 Associated Press.

So, while Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. may seem that they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, as both refer to the other in these works, their equal goal of obtaining civil rights for black Americans unites them. The events unfolding in America from 1963-64 give King and Malcom X the tools to build solid logical arguments about how society would need to implement and adhere to the Civil Rights Act, specifically regarding voting rights. The goal and consequences of these works differ vastly from one another, but they use the same forms of argument and rhetoric, pathos and logos, to solidify their positions. The similarities and strengths of these arguments has enabled them to endure for so long in our history. The continuation of civil and just treatment for black Americans continues to be an issue for the United States. It is my sincere hope that understanding how one constructs a good argument will allow us to be more productive by effectively engaging one another in discourse.

  1. Stephen Prothero, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), Kindle edition.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Malcom X, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (speech, Cleveland, OH, April 3, 1964), American Rhetoric,, 7.
  10. Ibid., 5.
  11. Ibid., 2.
  12. Ibid., 5.

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