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Essay: MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech: The Rhetoric of Hope for Equality

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. He spoke to over 250,000 people in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial for the “March on Washington” which was part of a civil rights demonstration. King was one of the major civil rights leader and conducted many non-violent protests, speeches, and marches. His goal was to promote equality and put an end to segregation and discrimination. Although racism is still occurring today, during the time of the speech discrimination against African Americans was a huge issue and Jim Crow Laws were still in effect. These Jim Crow laws encouraged segregation of whites and blacks. Throughout his speech uses inductive and deductive reason and also components of the rhetorical triangle; logos, ethos, and pathos. By using these elements, he provides hope for Americas future by wishing for a future without racism and segregation for the next generations.

King starts off his speech with “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the emancipation proclamation.” (King, 1963, para. 1) In this quote he is referring to Abraham Lincoln by using the same language that he used in the Gettysburg address which is “four score and seven years ago”. This shows that a president that almost everyone knows, or has heard of, fought for black equality. By using this it makes the audience feel like they are fighting for the same reason and this helps him build his ethos. He then goes on by stating that our founding fathers created a document, the Declaration of Independence, that states that everyone is equal. Since most people praise this American document it makes the audience fell like it is their civic and moral duty to enforce this right to equality. Another example of ethos is that King is able to relate to a majority of the audience since he is in fact African American and has experienced the same situations as other African Americans at the time. He allows the audience to relate to him and to experiences which allows him to increase his creditability. Once more when he talks about a brighter future for his children he is able to relate to parents, not just of African American descent, since he is one. This use of ethos allows him to be more relatable to the audience and allows the audience to put themselves in his shoes and also shows that he is a trustworthy source. He also proves his credibility by using the writing technique of parallelism throughout his speech by repeating phrases like “one hundred years later”, “Now is the time”, “we cannot be satisfied”, “I have a dream”, “let freedom ring” this method allows him to emphasize his ideas so that they really stick with the audience and helps them to sink in throughout his speech. Another writing technique that he uses is alliteration, this allows his speech to have rhythm and again helps his phrases stick in the mind of the audience. King was also a minister which persuaded the audience to respect him and trust that what he was saying to be true especially since he used a lot of biblical language for example when he says “valley of despair”. Since he was a preacher, the use of biblical language helps build his ethos and allows the audience to perceive what he is saying as true, because he has experience and a good grasp on the bible since he has probably read it multiple times. Also throughout King’s speech the word ‘we’ is used thirty times. This is used because it shows that the struggles that they were facing were also his struggles as well and also allows him to level and relate with the audience. Overall most of his credibility was established even before he said anything, since he was known as a leader for the civil rights movement and was considered a respected preacher.

The appeal to pathos is a huge part of King’s overall speech and really motivated the crowd in Washington and other Americans listening or watching on TV and radio. King first appeals to pathos by bringing the audience back to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed most slaves. He points out that even though it has been one hundred years, African Americans still do not have the freedom that they are entitled to. This appeals to most of the audience and provokes feelings of still being oppressed. After this he brings up the Declaration of Independence to show that it states that “all men are created equal” He brings up both of these American documents to point out how this is not the reality at the time. Although both of these documents state that everyone is equal, whites and black at the time were not because at the time segregation was still in place. This may provoke feelings of sadness and unfairness that King later uses to motivate the audience. This also allows the whites in the audience to realize how bad of a situation that African Americans are in and makes them dislike their own actions of racism, and it also helps paint an image for the African Americans in the audience that a majority of them can relate to. In paragraph five King says

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation form the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. (King, 1963, para. 5)

In this quote he uses imagery which allows the audience to visualize that there is an end to their struggle, he is also able to provide some vivid imagery for Christians with “the valley of death” which he is using to relate to the audience. This is an appeal to pathos because it makes the audience feel empowered and hopeful for the future by saying “Now it is time”.  He uses children as examples throughout his speech which allows the audience to not only want justice and change for themselves, but also for their children so that they may grow up and have a better future and more opportunities than they did.  Overall King’s use of pathos leaves his audience feeling not only empowered but also determined and hopeful for a better future without racism throughout his speech.

Another way King motivated his audience was a by the quote “And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship right. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” (King, 1963, para. 6) This quote is a blended appeal, which means that it contains logos, ethos, and pathos. This appeals to pathos because it makes the audience feel the need to fight for their deserved rights. It contains ethos because he is an African American who has not been granted his deserved right, this improves his credibility since he has personally experience racism and segregation in America. An example of logos in this quote is the fact that there will still be protest until African Americans get the rights that they deserve.

King’s impact of logos throughout his speech allows him to convince not only African Americans but all Americans to support what he is saying. One example of logos is when he is comparing the African American citizens to a bad check that is marked with insufficient funds. (King, 1963, para. 3) King already assumes that the audience understands checks and knows how it feels to be handed a bad check. The impact of logos throughout his speech convinces African Americans to support what he is saying. Another example of logos is “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed, for many of the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brother, as evidence by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” (King, 1963, para. 9) King is stating to the audience that although many white people at the time were racist many are standing with them because they saw the injustice and mistreatment of African Americans. King also states that to those who ask civil right protesters “When will you be satisfied?” that they will not be satisfied until African American are no longer the target and victims of police brutality (King, 1963, para. 9) He is saying that unless discrimination and segregation are eliminated that nothing is going to get better.

King uses deductive reasoning throughout his speech. One example of this is when he states that the constitution and the declaration of independence provide all men with unalienable rights. He also says that black men are also men. Therefore, if both of these claims are true then the conclusion should be that black men should be given the same rights as white men.  He uses inductive reasoning when he states that one hundred years earlier the emancipation proclamation promised African American freedom. Later he describes the unjust treatment of African Americans. Therefore, this concludes that the Emancipation proclamation did not fulfill its promise of freedom to African Americans. This is inductive since there is only one premise this premise fits the requirements to make it inductive reasoning.

In conclusion Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech was probably one of his most famous speeches ever given at the most famous march in history. King’s use of logos, ethos, and pathos helped inspire a generation to push toward ending segregation and promoting equality. Overall King’s had an overwhelming use of pathos throughout his speech. This was used to show the injustices that African Americans were facing at the time by making the audience feel sadness at the beginning of the speech, because of inequality, and then provokes feelings of hope and motivation near the end of the speech, because he talks about a better future.  Regarding ethos, he helped push for justice by promoting non-violent protest and sit-ins and was a major leader in the civil rights demonstration which improved his credibility and his ethos all together. With logos King was able to show the fact that equality is not prevalent. Through King’s use of literary devices, we can see that his speech was very effective in motivating not only to the audience at Washington, D.C. but a generation across America to push for change.

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