Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream” is more than half a century old but it is still a widely studied example of good rhetoric and persuasive methods. Martin Luther King was known as a powerful orator; all the more he had to use his speaking talents to engage as more people as possible to change the situation with racial discrimination. By the time of the speech, August 28, 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum but it was installed by the authorities and the indifference of the white public. Therefore, King had a three-fold task. He wanted to inspire his fellow countrymen involved in the racial struggle and to show that they should not get discouraged with their futile attempts; he wanted to reveal the problem to many whites who did not believe that racism was worth their attention; and he wanted to get attention of the authorities. To this effect, King employed Aristotle’s rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos, and logos to ground his credibility and convince the audience of the legibility of his claims through appeals to logic and emotions.
King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington on the 28th of August, 1963. King and his Movement were continually stalled in their intentions to hold peaceful civil rights demonstrations and rallies by the authorities. However, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom received approval from the authorities and the affair was expected to have a high attendance rate. In addition, it was widely publicized and the speeches at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were aired on TV. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King was known and recognized; he often gave speeches at civil rights demonstrations, conferences, and sermons at black churches; he even used the now famous refrain “I have a dream” more than once in his oratories. However, King had never before had such a wide and versatile audience (Young, 2013, para. 3).
King and the Civil Rights Movement advocated the philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience and the inability to force their viewpoint with brutality, which was viewed by some as weakness. The year of King’s address in Washington was before the major civil rights breakthroughs happened. The Civil Rights Act that abolished racial discrimination in voting rights, housing, education and workplaces was signed only a year later, in 1964. Therefore, some supporters of the Civil Rights Movement felt discouraged and frustrated that their morally correct actions did not bring the long-awaited fruits. However, even more important than to inspire his supporters, King’s purpose was to explain to the white folks what was going on in the country. In 1963, the civil rights movement was in its full swing, and there was a large part of the white population who saw social turbulence in society but did not fully comprehend the reason for it. King’s speech enlightened them. Therefore, King’s task was to construct his speech and choose the right words in such a way so as to persuade both sides of his auditory.
According to Aristotle, a successful public speaker should focus his/her address on the target audience because the same subject can and should be presented differently for various groups of people. For example, an issue of euthanasia should be introduced in a much different manner to a group of college students than to professional doctors. Thus, a person who wants to deliver a speech that will make an impact should not only carefully pick words to convey the meaning he/she intended to but also keep in mind the audience members. To this effect, the speaker should realize what drives the audience and what makes each individual person tick. As a group of people is not homogeneous and each one has his/her personal characteristics, needs, and beliefs, the speaker should try to appeal to all the people based on their education level, background, age, etc. If the spears understand the audience correctly, the response from it will be as expected (West & Turner, 2010, p. 313).
Apart from targeting the audience, a successful public speech needs to contain a good number of proofs not to be a vague beating around the bush, but strike to the point and support the orator’s claims. However, the speaker should not rely only on logical construction because a large group of people usually has a lower IQ than each person taken separately. It can be said that the crowd has a mind of its own. Therefore, people in a group respond very well to emotional appeals because emotional level is easier to connect to than the intellectual one. In order to engage every important level in the speech, Aristotle singles out three proofs of persuasion such as ethos, pathos, and logos.
Ethos lends credibility to the public speaker. Without it the audience will not believe the speaker and will not respond to his/her ideas at all. However, Richard West and Lynn Turner (2010) note that ethos is what a stable category only; it is changing and interactive: “[A] speaker’s ethos is not simply something that is brought into a speaking experience; it is the speaking experience” (p. 314). It means that if a doctor gives a lecture on euthanasia his initial credibility is high but at the same time ducting his interactions with the audience he/she is able to increase his/her influence. Using the example of Martin Luther King’s speech, we will later see how it works.
Upon ensuring credibility, one should engage the audience’s mind and soul. Logos appeals to intellectual’s abilities of the audience members through the logical construction of the argument, additional information such as numbers, statistics, and others. Aristotle also notes that logos includes a well-worded language. The message should be clear to the audience and have little ambiguities. For example, the poetical language is prone to wide interpretations and cannot be considered as a means of persuasion. Meanwhile, pathos covers the audience’s emotional needs by appealing to universal emotions and the subconsciousness (West & Turner, 2010, p. 314). These three Aristotelian means of persuasion are all present in King’s speech at the 1963 March in Washington.
The ethos King evokes during his “I have a dream” speech lends him credibility that he later enhances using his arguments. As a black man and a pastor of a black church, King gives a personal dimension to his speech. In 1963, King was already known nationwide as an activist of the civil rights movement. Thus, the audience feels that King is a credible speaker as he organized and took part in many civil rights events. Therefore, King does not need to prove his credibility and applies logos from the very beginning by referring to the historical events of slavery, abolishment, and the Emancipation Proclamation (King, 1963, para. 2).
King’s logical appeal reminded people about sad conditions African Americans lived in including segregation, discrimination, and the worse financial situation than white had. King’s difficult task was to address the issue of racism both to the victims of it and to the wrongdoers who very often refused to see it as such. For this purpose, King carefully chooses his diction. When referring to the negative attitude towards the civil rights movement he uses negatively colored word such as “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” and powerful contrasts “desolate valley of segregation” versus “sunlit path of racial justice” and “the quicksands of racial injustice” versus “the solid rock of brotherhood” (King, 1963, para. 6). King reminds that their discontent is “legitimate” because the police treats African Americans brutally and segregation in public places is humiliating (King, 1963, para. 7).
King’s logical appeal is largely intensified by his use of pathos. Basing his emotional appeal on the Biblical allusion King complements it by using colorful metaphors and poetic imagery. At the beginning of his speech King refers to the language of the financial world. As a nation of people who value material welfare, King calls the inability of America to provide its citizens with racial equality “bankruptcy” and “insufficient funds” (King, 1963, para. 4). In this metaphorical language the desire of racial minorities to be equal is referred to as “we’ve come to cash this check” and “the riches of freedom and the security of justice” (King, 1963, para. 5). To better demonstrate how different African Americans’ lives are from whites’, King uses parallel structures saying “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality” (King, 1963, para. 9). The powerful imagery is intended to make the audience envision what awaits them in case of indifference and a lassez-faire attitude: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges” (King, 1963, para. 10).
By the end of the speech King felt the need to add even more pathos. According to historical research, the ‘I have a dream’ part was not initially advised as a repetitive, “trite” and “clich?” because King used it numerously in his public appeals (Young, 2013, para. 1). However, the day of the March was boiling hot, people grew tired and weary, and probably King felt the need to shake up the audience. This is an example of mutual influence of the speaker and the audience West and Turner (2010) referred to (p. 314). Under these circumstances Kings beefs up his speech with a poetic refrain “I have a dream”. He repeats it several times expanding his thought and explaining what exactly he would like to see in lives of the U.S. citizens of any color. The use of repetitive clauses creates an emotional appeal while different endings of successive clauses make the statements convincing for both types of the audience. As was mentioned earlier, King’s aim was to engage both black and white population. One of the premises of white suprematism was doing right and good. By believing in their inherent goodness Anglo-Saxons justified racial discrimination. By saying “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” King reminds white people that their tendency to think good about themselves can be, and should be, supported by their deeds. If the nation was established on the premises of equality, that principle should find its implementation in everyday life.
Thus, it is evident that the success of King’s speech was based on his marvelous knowledge of the audience. The careful construct of “I Have a Dream” speech took into consideration both African Americans, who at the moment of the March still suffered from segregation and visible manifestations of racial prejudice, and white population that was not fully aware of the on-going consequences of slavery and racism. Even though the issue of racial inequality already contains pathos as an emotionally charged topic, King enhances his emotional appeal by using Biblical allusions, quotes and metaphorical diction. Each of the Aristotelian means of persuasion – ethos, logos, and pathos – contribute to the way a speech is accepted. Therefore, King’s use of all three made his speech so effective that it has been widely anthologized, studied, and quoted since.
The ‘I have a dream’ speech assisted the Civil Rights Movement to gain a much larger support that it had before. As an event aired on TV live, the speeches at the 1963 March gathered a very large audience. However, it was King’s reliance on rhetoric methodology that brought about his success. Unless he hadn’t been able to convince both auditoria – black and white – in the urgency and importance of equal rights, the speech would have fallen flat. However, the correct use of rhetorical means had such a great impact that King became known among whites as much as he used to be known among the black population. Today, Martin Luther King is still recognized as one of the most influential personalities in the XX century and especially the one who contributed a lot to the civil rights movement.