In 1963 Martin Luther King gave the most powerful and famous speech in the history of the United States. 40 years later, no other speech has been able to overcome the effect that this speech has had on the American people generation after generation. Despite the fact that the message of the speech is perhaps the most enduring aspect of the speech, the rhetorical strategies Martin Luther King used were instrumental in captivating the attention of millions people then, and now.
The purpose of “I have a dream” was to awaken awareness about the importance of equality and to transcend his vision through the use of pathos, ethos and biblical imagery, among other elements; these are the strategies that enabled him to compose a dialogue that is essentially as motivating as a work of poetry. In order to deliver a powerful speech that would move masses of people as it was his purpose, Martin Luther King performed an excellent research on the bible, the U. S constitution and The Gettysburg Address.
Basing his speech on these documents allowed him to appeal to the basis by which the country of the United States was founded upon and by which society established social norms. In this way he was able to appeal to their moral, logical and emotional senses. The use of biblical language and imagery was especially important because religion was an essential part of the lives of people. Regardless of level of education, most of the population could recognize biblical references.
The various biblical allusions provided by Martin Luther King serve as a moral basis for the arguments he presented. For instance, when advocating for freedom he managed to relate it the most basic and pure values that are kindness and forgiveness “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” [paragraph 2]. In these lines, he alludes to Psalms 30:5 and asks his audience not to hold to anger and to let go of the conflicts different races and religions may have had in the past.
A similar concept can be understood in the following phrase “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” which alludes to Jeremiah 2:13. Referring to biblical quotes, Martin Luther King succeeded to remind his audience about basic and moral values that are important in any society. Moreover, they also worked as a way establish credibility with his audience (ethos) and to The art of using ethos in a speech or any work of literature is to appeal to people’s sense of rightness by establishing credibility.
Most people have a certain scale of standards of what is acceptable for them to do or not to do. In the Speech “I have a dream” Martin Luther King reminds the population that the current situation is not correct under a common scale of ethical standards. As mentioned before, in order to establish this common scale of standards, in various part of his speech he refers to the constitution of the United States “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US Const. amend. I, sec. 1).
In this quote, he appeals to a very important ethical standard which are human rights, and as the constitution mentions, they are undeniable rights, which were being denied to African Americans during that time. After quoting this very important passage of the constitution he points out that “All men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” [paragraph 1]. In doing so, he also introduces his dream and argument of his speech: racial equality. As he quotes the U.
S constitution, he also establishes authority; in the United States, the U. S constitution is viewed as a supreme authority and therefore it has a stronger appeal in the ethical senses of the population. This was also a good way to establish credibility which furthers his appeal on people’s sense of right and wrong, and makes his argument as resilient as it was. Another great use of ethos, was reminding the American people that “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
King started his speech by referring to the emancipation proclamation which was signed by Abraham Lincoln to free slaves. This starts to awaken awareness as to how signing this very important document was not enough to achieve racial equality. He makes this picture clearer when he mentions “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” it is here where his key idea is presented and enables his transition into a more emotional tone in the rest of his speech. Throughout the speech, King takes a rhetorical emphasis on emotions (pathos).
Words like “shameful” “sadly crippled” “chains of discrimination” “guilty” ”oppression” “injustice” “bitterness and hatred” have a very negative connotation and helped him establish empathy for the African Americans who were undergoing injustice, and discrimination. As a contrast, he also used words like “justice” “freedom” “majestic” “brotherhood” “glory” and “faith” which carry a positive connotation. Words like this were encouraging and have sense of hope to them.
More than appealing to emotions in a negative manner, Martin Luther King also wanted to transcend his hopes and dreams for the American people by his use of pathos. During his speech “I have a Dream” Martin Luther King was able to impact thousands of people. His ability to reach and to touch the emotional and ethical senses of people was by mastering rhetorical elements like ethos, pathos and biblical imagery. He begins by establishing credibility by the use of important documents like the bible, the constitution and the emancipation proclamation.
Then he moves to appeal to the emotions of people by using words that will incline his audience to sympathize and to empathize with the decimation African American people were living. After gaining the audience’s empathy and consensus over the injustice imposed on African American he then changes his tone to create a positive atmosphere of hope and triumph. In this way he is able to persuade the public of creating a society free of injustice were everyone has the same rights regardless of the struggles they may have had in the past.