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Essay: Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech – ethos, logos, and pathos

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In the middle of the twentieth century, the civil rights movement found its voice in a young Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia: Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK).  King lead the movement towards success until his death in 1968, making a name for himself through the acts of civil disobedience which he helped to lead.  The March on Washington in August of 1963, organized by King among other civil rights activists, was the site of a speech that will echo through eternity.  The speech, made by King himself, was pegged as the “I Have a Dream” speech.  MLK addressed more than just the two-hundred-thousand men and women in attendance.  He spoke to all those who felt they had been oppressed, and gave them a voice.  In the face of rampant discrimination and segregation against the race he proudly represented, King maintained an unquestioned faith in his country which stands as a true testament to his character.  It is important to recognize, though, the aspects of MLK’s delivery that made the “I Have a Dream” speech so impactful.  King successfully established his credibility with the audience (ethos), presented convincing information (logos), and backed his performance with raw emotion (pathos).  All of these factors helped engrave King’s message in the minds of millions of civilians, making it possible for his dream to be realized.
At the start of his speech, while standing in front of the famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., King said, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”  Right away, King begins to establish credibility by relating the message he is trying to send to the message that a great American, Abraham Lincoln, effectively sent decades before while fighting against slavery.  By comparing the civil rights movement to the anti-slavery movement, King paints the picture of success.  By stating that the modern day movement stands in the “symbolic shadow” of Lincoln, MLK is effectively utilizes Lincoln’s credibility on the topic. Later on in the speech, King begins to mention “unalienable rights” which the Declaration of Independence is supposed to provide for all.  However, he stated that these rights do not currently exist for the negro people.  By referencing a credible document that is supposed to be representative of the U.S., King further develops his credibility.  He shows that what he is fighting for is explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence as something that should already exist for all, but doesn’t.  There are other instances in his speech where MLK successfully establishes his credibility using ethos. Regardless, none were more effective than King’s references to the globally renowned Abraham Lincoln and the document that led to the establishment of our great country: the Declaration of Independence.
King’s effective use of rhetoric did not stop with his persuasive ethos, he also eloquently applied logic to further his message.  MLK uses a great analogy when addressing the reason for which the March on Washington was being held:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

This is the most powerful use of logic we see in King’s speech.  In short, MLK is saying that the Declaration of Independence has made promises which remain unfulfilled for the Negro people.  We see logos being used here because King stated a line from the Declaration verbatim, and the stated line undoubtedly attests to the fact that each American should have the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Later on in the speech, King’s repetition of the words, “We can never be satisfied,” reiterates his message.  For example, at one point he says, “We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”  Logos is apparent here, as there is no logical reason for anybody to be satisfied with their race progressing the way King believes the Negro race is (or in this case, isn’t).  It is clear that MLK effectively used logic to better his argument. First, by presenting the difference between what the Declaration of Independence promised and what existed in this country. Then by examining the state of the Negro people, which King concludes should leave Negro’s unsatisfied.  Both of these cases are extremely effective in supplementing the recurring themes that MLK is illustrates throughout his speech.
While the credibility King establishes and the logical arguments he presents certainly help him to deliver his message, the speech’s emotion is most striking.  While some feel MLK appealed solely to Negro people in the previously mentioned instances of logos, his pathetic appeals struck a chord with people of all races.  King calls for unity when he says, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together,” as well as when he is reiterating his dream: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”  It is hard to argue that King is calling for anything other than the U.S. to unite and quell its racial tensions, which most likely elicited an emotional nationalistic response.  Additional emotion is provided when MLK brings up the treatment of his kids.  He stated that he hopes his, “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  When hearing this, I immediately pictured four young children being taunted because the color of their skin.  I feel that that is exactly what King was trying to do: make his audience visualize the struggle of not just his children, but innocent children everywhere.  Like an effective use of pathos should, this evoked an emotional response in me and I am sure it did the same for many others.
In one of the most famous and arguably greatest speeches in American history, Martin Luther King Jr. successfully used ethos, logos, and pathos to delivery his message.  He was not only fantastic at speaking, but also at utilizing nonverbal communication skills to engage the audience.  We see King’s skills at work when he pauses and surveys the audience, eliciting thunderous applause.  The “I Have a Dream” speech was one of the greatest speeches ever made by one of the greatest speakers ever and not only planted MLK’s name deeper in American history, but also solidified him as a perfect example in public speaking courses across America.

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