In the past sixty years, few events have been more inspiring than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he presented his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Mr. King was quite despondent of where America was headed to at that time because of the violent attacks that had transpired against the civil rights protesters before then (History.com). Which is the reason this speech left such an impact; it exhibited the great rhetorical skills Dr.
King had. It became a successful example of persuasion of the audience because it was able to move a large audience to understand and sympathize with people of color. The function of rhetoric is to persuade an audience using techniques such as analogies, emotion, or logic also known as ethos, pathos, or logos and this is exactly what Mr. King used to convince his audience in “I Have A Dream”.
To explain why it is full of rhetorical appeal we should first understand the circumstances that was taking place back then.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on the 28th of August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Before 1963, Mr. King had moved with his family to the highly segregated city of Montgomery and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as NAACP (History.com). There had been escalating violence against those in the NAACP including Mr. King’s home, which was firebombed by white supremacists (History.
com). That violence and others that followed after had become national news which sparked frustration in many African Americans and inspiration in some White Americans to go out and march along with them for their rights. The speech Mr. King delivered that day was meant to encourage a change in the government as well as a change within the communities that were known to be very racist such as the ones in Alabama and Mississippi as mentioned in his speech. A big part of why people back then were able to trust him, was because of what they knew about him.
One of his rhetorical appeals was ethos, which is when the speaker is able to convince the audience using his character. Mr. King was able to do this because many fellow African Americans had known that he was a Baptist pastor (“King”). This helped because many of them were either of the same religion or of a similar religion and that made them feel as though they were much closer to him than if he was just a regular man without religion. Another form of character he was known for is for being the lead social activist for the civil rights movement, which he presented himself as most of the time (“King”). That made him famous for letting those that were planning to join any protest to make it peaceful and setting the standard of a nonviolent protest. A good example of this in his speech would be: “I have a dream that my 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” (King). There he connects the audience to him by letting them know about his wish to have his family live safely. With that, many other families can relate more easily to him because they also care about their family’s well-being and can now see that he is a person of good character.
Another rhetorical appeal used was pathos, which is the persuasion of the audience by using their emotions. Pathos is seen in his speech many times by mentioning very violent or tragic events that happened in order to gain the audience’s sympathy. A great example of this would be: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free . . . sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination . . . liv[ing] on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity . . . still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition” (King). Mr. King wanted the audience to better understand the conditions and suffering many African Americans were put through. By using vivid language and helping the audience feel the pain of those who have faced discrimination, he gained more followers to help with the civil rights movement. At this time, the audience that he is speaking to are those that came with him to the march and that gathered right in front of him as well as those that didn’t make it and that were watching it back at home on their television or listening to it on the radio. The audience by now has felt the need to take action and finally senses the urgency that Mr. King was explaining that needed to be enforced. He was able to successfully persuade the audience that not moving forward with justice for all was shameful.
The last rhetorical appeal he had used was logos, which is persuading the audience with logic or reason. A big portion of the speech is based upon what the Declaration of Independence states in regard to equality for all Americans. This is brought to light by Mr. King in his speech in which he states “Five score years ago, a great American . . . signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” (King). This heavily contrasted to the unfair treatment African Americans were being treated with over a century later. Mr. King had brought that up because he wanted to show the audience how the promise of rights as a citizen that was given to them in the Declaration of Independence was never able to be successfully achieved. The reason a lot of this was brought up was because violence against African Americans appeared to be more commonplace than usual and that is what caused the protest for equality (History.com). Thus, Mr. King brought up the claim this nation did not follow through with its promise in the Declaration of Independence. “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . [but] [i]t is obvious today that America . . . has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” (King). The comparison Mr. King made with a check and the rights of its citizens made sense to the audience at the time. They were able to easily follow along and understand what he meant by mentioning that Abraham Lincoln had made it a policy back then. They were all aware that he was a good person of good moral character and they could only agree with Mr. King that it was only logical the next step be that African Americans be given their rights. Since they had been “heirs” to receive for this for a very long time.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are rhetorical appeals that were seen be implemented in Mr. Kings “I Have a Dream” speech. It was noted that with Ethos Mr. King was able to persuade the public to trust him by just his good character alone, of a Baptist pastor. There was also his use of Pathos which helped him successfully use tragic emotion to persuade the audience to agree that African Americans were going through a lot of hardships just to be able to be treated equally. Lastly, Logos is what he used when he reasoned logically with the audience. He used the fact that it was stated in the Declaration of Independence that every American citizen was treated equal (King). Altogether, Mr. King was able to influence many people for years to come with his speech and was also able to succeed in his fight for civil rights for African Americans.