Rhetoric Analysis: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”

In a period when civil rights of the black people in the United States were trampled on by the majority whites, Martin Luther King, a minister of a Protestant religious community and a leader of the Civil Rights movement delivered a landmark speech in Washington. The year was 1963 and the principal aim of his speech was to inspire the citizens of the United States.

He urged them to wake up to the reality of the disappointments and the frustrations the black people were going through due to the rampant racism. He also wanted to pass a message of challenge both to black and white Americans, to persuade them to have a valid discussion to end such racism that, according to him, was unproductive and backtracking. “I have a Dream” is the thought-out rhetorical speech, that is a good example of appealing to logos, ethos and pathos of the wide audience.

The audience of the speech is a general one. It focuses both on the blacks and the whites alike. The blacks were to hear their struggle for equality and to have the courage to ask for their rights as the constitution entitles them. The whites were to hear the black people’s plea of the frustration they were facing so as to desist from treating them as third rate non-citizens. However it is worthwhile to note that King delivered the speech in Washington DC. Perhaps, it was an attempt to attract the attention of legislators, policymakers and other government officials who lived and worked in the capital city.

The type of the narration is among the most important rhetorical components of the speech. It emphasizes the shifts in the mood of the rhetor, make the speech more personalized, and helps to make transitions from appealing to ethos and pathos. “I have a Dream” takes a narrative approach. In some instances, the scope of the speech changes to argumentative. The rhetor expresses his personal beliefs. King adopts a high position on the issue of the whites mistreating the blacks. There are some foundation points that the author highlights in his speech that brings out the clarity and the mental imagery of the speech. The author juggles between formal and informal style in his style delivery. Occasionally, the speech is characterized by the informality of the message during the next instance the author switches entirely to formality. Such shifts help King be emotional and logical at the same time, and do not allow the audience distract from the message of the speech.

The author has a decent diction in the speech. Throughout the speech, one cannot overlook the black gospel that the author is trying to preach. Such style is chosen to persuade the Christian audience, that consists both from black and white Americans, by appealing to their religious feelings in the form they are used to. The words King chooses are appropriate to his audience and the occasion. As a minister of the Protestant religious group Luther uses some verses from the Bible. For instance, he says: “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (The English Standard Version Bible, Isa. 40.5), which is a verse quoted from the Bible. King uses repetitive words and makes logical references like the one to the fact that various states of the US are highly inhabited by the black people to emphasize his points. The repetitions fit into the format of the gospel and help to remember the information better.

The ornament of the speech is highly religious. Most of the reference King makes in the speech relate to the Christian beliefs. In some instances, he adds flavor to the speech by singing a Christian song. The tone is informative as well as authoritative. In the situations when the author wants to persuade the tone is informative. However, in certain cases the emotions overcome him and his tone becomes more authoritative. There is also a descriptive tone in the speech. The author describes several scenarios and pays precise attention to the states that have been significantly hit by the racism. The imagery consists of the dark real life examples and results of the racism. The essential part of the speech is about the tribulations the black people experience in a white domineering society. Such description is the good example of pathos, and in the case of King’s speech it is very powerful. Though, despite the depressing reality, King believes that people will understand how horrible racism is and the situation will change some day. He repeats that he has a dream, and it gives hope to thousands of people, who also believe in the possible equal rights for all.

The claims of the speech are not clear from the first sight, because being straightforward does not correspond to the philosophy of non-violent fight. However, there are supporting points that allow the audience understand what is the message. King uses logos to substantiate his speech. First the author shows that America is not devoted to the constitution’s call for equality of all people. He also proves that the black people are in bondage in their land. Additionally, he tries to tell his audience that it is the right time to fight for equality of all people. As he says, “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning” (King 342). It shows that there is a matter of urgency that all people need to fight for their rights. He even calls for people to United to move throughout the United States, mobilizing their colleagues not to relent in their endeavor to seek for equality of all races.

The author appeals to the support of black Americans and faithful Christians, who suffer from racism and believe in Christ. That is why the rhetor uses biblical verses and quotes to enhance his message. He likens the black people with a member of scenario in the Bible. Additionally, King uses his personal testimony of the dire conditions in which he talks about all the black people who are living in the United States. He says: “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote” (King 342).

Apart from the undoubted support of the black Americans, King uses artificial support to appeal to his audience. Pathos is used inherently throughout the speech to enhance the imagery of the tribulations of the black in the racist society. He begins the speech with a rather extended allegory of Negroes and checks. He says that the Negroes were given a bad check to freedom, and, therefore, it became impossible to cash it. All these usages of pathos appeal to the feelings of the audience, show them that the problem is of enormous size, and without their personal participation the society will not change. King gives people certitude in the idea that racism and segregation is not normal, and it should be fought.

The introduction of the speech is based on pathos with explicit imagery of the sufferings of the black Americans. The author opens the speech with the claim that despite the fact that John F Kennedy’s “Emancipation Proclamation” was signed almost a hundred years ago, the US is still full of slaves. Afterward, the hope diminishes, and the author is quick to lament on the adverse conditions that befell black people thereafter. He says: “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” (King 342).

The rhetor of the speech applies an imagery style towards the end of the speech. His excellent articulation of the future he hopes for is vividly clear by his use of mind capturing phrases of the world that attains full equality of both races. King uses images of black children and white children playing together without fear of separation. He also hopes for the future that the “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” (King 343). Such phrases create imagery in the speech, and the audience can relate the present and the future that the rhetor describes so emotionally. Apart from creating vivid imagery, his future representation in the speech forms the part of pathos. It elucidates empathy from the audience.

The use of ethos is also evident the speech. Ethos infers the rhetor’s ability to communicate ethical issues. It is an appeal to ethics. King appeals to the audience about the ethics of the community. He is trying to help both the blacks and the whites to separate good from evil. According to him, it is not right for the whites to treat the blacks in an undermining way. He is also against the idea of the whites living in good conditions while the blacks live in impoverished conditions. To him, that is unethical. He claims that the whites should exercise equality. The blacks need to have the same facilities as the whites. On the other hand, he urges the blacks on the revolution to be ethical enough not to use force in the struggle. He says: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” (King 343). The sentiments show that he does not agitate for hatred and bitterness but rather an amicable solution of the matter.

King uses logos in his oratory speech as an appeal to logic. In his allegory of check and bank, King says that the black people were given bad check that was labeled insufficient funds. The use of logos in his speech is an indication that King’s rationale logically told him that his audience could relate check and the suffering the black people were undergoing. The use of logos is important in this speech, because it gives the speech the realism it deserves.

The style of speech that Luther uses in delivering his speech is ornamental. One of the stylistic devices the speech outlines is anaphora. It supposes the style where the same words repeat in different subsequent sentences. King uses this style repeatedly throughout the speech for the purpose of emphasis. Such style also gives the speech an effect of musicality and a sense of remembrance. For example, King uses a series of “I have a dream” sentences that form the topic of the speech. In these series King speaks of his dream of equality where the blacks and the whites are treated equally. He says he has a dream of a nation where his children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the traits of their character. He repeats this phrase for a consecutive eight times. He also uses the same stylistic details later with the “Let the freedom” sentences. Here he gives a “shout out” to the American people living in different parts of the country, such as Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and California. In the same speech he uses anaphora in successive sentences starting with “go back to…” where he urges people to go back to their homes with energized hopes.

There are numerous examples of the uses of contrast in the speech. In “I Have a Dream” King has compared different periods of history. As the introduction of the speech goes, King compares the past times and the present state of things. He says that a hundred years after the slaves were freed, the black people are still not liberated. King goes on contrasting “now” and “then” in the first part of his speech which has the effect of abandoning the formal rhetoric of the past. The use of this styles emphasizes the realism and the urgency of the issue. The rhetor gives the audience a possibility to compare where the country came from and where it is on the moment of the speech.

King’s speech was successful in attaining its objectives. Being a renowned writer and an eloquent speaker King used his oratory skills efficiently in delivering his message. His words that are full of hope and were deliberately chosen to empower the audience, which determines their efficiency in reaching the set goals. King has uses a variety of rhetorical styles such as repetition, contrast, allegory and others with professionalism. Additionally, the great mix of pathos, ethos, and logos in his speech makes it realistic and impressive. “I Have a Dream” is considered to be the main speech of the 20th century, and it is difficult to argue with this claim.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” 40 Model Essays: a Portable Anthology. Ed. J. Aaron Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.

The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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