rhetorical analysis of dr. king's "i have a dream" speech

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An analysis of the pathos, ethos, and logos used in the speeech and their overall effectiveness.


Oden 1 Lance E. Oden Michelle Glenn WRIT 3037: Advance Writing 04 August 2010 Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: A Rhetorical Analysis of a Venerated Vision Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entered the world January 15, 1929, the eldest son of a Christian minister. Not surprisingly, the career path undertaken by his father became one in which he excelled. Possessing a brilliant mind and strong leadership potential, the call of the ministry came naturally to Dr. King. However, the unexpected turns which that path would take reflect a motivation and determination unique to this man. At age 15 he entered college and at age 25 he became one of the youngest ministers ever hired at a prominent black church in Montgomery, Alabama. These accomplishments stand as precursors to his future role as an influential leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The common factor in both his work in the ministry and his efforts to reform civil rights in America, the power of oration, marks him as a man worthy of remembrance and respect. One crowning achievement, his speech in Washington, D.C., given on August 28, 1963, to a crowd in excess of two hundred thousand people, signified his emergence on the national civil rights scene. In his I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King uses the rhetorical principles of ethos, logos, and pathos in calling upon the audience to unite and maintain their ongoing efforts to forge a nation that lives up to its expressed ideals of liberty and justice for all. Using specific language and allusions, Dr. King coordinates his efforts supporting ethos, or the audiences acceptance of his credibility and authority, and therefore his argument. This begins with the opening line of the speech when Dr. King states, I am happy to join with you

Oden 2 today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. With just one sentence, he manages to convey both that he and the audience stand together in mind and action, and that their efforts hold historical significance. Even deeper credibility flows from the combination of the site of the speech and Dr. Kings diction choices. Protestors calling for equality make up the audience, and the speech occurs in the shadows of a monument dedicated to the memory of an iconic American president who struck the first major blow towards racial equality in the nation. Further invoking Lincolns spirit, Dr. King employs the line Five score years ago, which echoes those of Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. Connection to Lincoln enhances Dr. Kings perception as a leader and helps him to have his message heard by the audience which will associate him with this historical president. Additional support for Dr. Kings credibility comes in his stating to the audience, some of you have come here out of great trial and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Highlighting an understanding for the difficulties of the journey the protestors have embarked upon, these lines also mark Dr. King as one of them, as his audience knows he has faced the same obstacles. By declaring those with such experiences veterans, Dr. King testifies of his own history and establishes legitimacy in his leadership. Logos in Dr. Kings argument comes from the arrangement of his presentation and its steady progression to a climactic peak. Building his argument through logic, Dr. King juxtaposes the line Five score years ago with the line But one hundred years later. Presenting it in this way, Dr. King underscores the unfulfilled promise of yesterday. Another diction choice supporting logos comes in Dr. Kings anaphoratic use of the word now, which grounds the

Oden 3 speech in the present and denies the possibility of waiting another hundred years for justice. Using the metaphor of cashing a check, Dr. King presents another link in the logical chain of his argument. Accepting that the decree of freedom for slaves created a binding contract with the people, logic demands that when that check remains unredeemed, those in possession of the note must act to claim its promise. Moving from the cry of now, Dr. King presents the argument that this event does not represent a one time effort, but an ongoing revolution. He points out that It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and underestimate the determination of the Negro, and, Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. These lines assure the audience that their efforts have value and that, as a group, they can achieve their objectives. Next, Dr. King moves to define that group as a peaceful one made up of all races with lines like In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds, and, The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white peopleWe cannot walk alone. Having defined both the group and its purpose, Dr. King calls upon the audience to take the feelings of this moment and go back to their homes throughout the nation and continue the fight for justice. Completing the logical chain in his argument, Dr. King looks for more than simple appreciation of his words; he enlists those present to work on achieving the dream. When Dr. King uses the I have a dream anaphora, he outlines the mission objectives, and his dream transforms into the collective objective of all those who hear his words. Crafting the pathos of his speech, Dr. King invokes allusions to Christianity and the Holy Bible to increase the emotional appeal of his argument. Ministering to the audience, he calls on them to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood, referring to Jesus Christs parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand and

Oden 4 the wise man who had a foundation of rock. Christians will immediately connect to this allusion and to its championing of equality and brotherhood as the wise choice for the nation. Building on that sense of wisdom, Dr. King cautions against physical violence and counsels his listeners to rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. Those familiar with Christs admonition that his followers turn the other cheek will see a clear parallel in Dr. Kings words and more readily accept that spiritual guidance. Taking a less subtle approach, direct quotations from the bible appear in Dr. Kings determination to hold out until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, which comes from the book of Amos in the Old Testament. Also from the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, Dr. King quotes, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. Together, these instances represent clear attempts by Dr. King to connect to the strong religious feelings of his audience. Religious fervor, a powerful emotion, ties into the quest for a better world, and Dr. King concludes his speech with what he hopes will become the prayer of gratitude on the other side of the struggle for racial equality; he quotes the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! free at last! thank God almighty, we are free at last! In a clear demonstration of his prowess as an orator, Dr. King combines the rhetorical principles of ethos, logos, and pathos to give his argument power and resonance with his audience. The logical aspect of the argument allows the listeners minds to find common ground. The authority and legitimacy of the speaker forces the audience to invest their hearts in the experience. And finally, the emotion tied to religious allusions pulls the souls of all those addressed into a place of community and integrity. Mind, heart, and soul, Dr. King leads his audience to the only possible result, support of his argument and its objectives. All those assembled cannot help but understand that the time for racial discrimination has passed and a

Oden 5 new age of tolerance, equality, justice, and freedom must make its way to the forefront of the nation.

Oden 6 Work Cited King, Martin Luther Jr. I Have a Dream. Elements of Argument. Ed. Annette T. Rottenberg and Donna Haisty Winchell. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 529-532. Print.