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Analysis of Speech by Martin Luther King

Analysis of Speech by Martin Luther King


Only some people in the world are chosen by fate to gain hero status. Martin Luther King, the leader of the African – American Civil rights Movement who improved the level of morality in the US, showed the way to the ideal relationships in society, and found a path to connecting different races is definitely a hero. However, he had never used weapon in achieving these goals. In fact, his weapon was different. It was words, which did not only influence the mind of listeners, but reached their souls. The striking example of world-changing speeches is ‘I have a Dream’ that, on August 28, 1963, in Washington DC, united over 200, 000 white and black Americans. It caused a great change in the minds of citizens of different races, showing the benefits of life without racism. “…when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Such achievements would not be possible without King’s rhetorical skills based on Logos and Ethos presented in an extremely appealing way, which left nobody indifferent.

Background of the Speaker

King is known as Baptist minister and civil rights leader. During his entire career, he struggled for freedom and equality of black people. The reason for becoming a civil rights activist can be traced back to his childhood. He came from a humble family that represented black middle class in the South. Although such conditions did not bring him financial wellbeing, they contributed to something more important – formation of the basis of his future ideology. Secondly, his professional activity during adulthood also influenced the main aspects of King’s rhetoric. In February 1948, he was ordained and appointed assistant pastor at Ebenezer. This experience helped him to understand that it was necessary to gather many people in order to share the ideology of equality. The first attempt was made during the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 381 days, from 4 December 1955 to 21 December 1956. His active position to prevent angry blacks from resorting to retaliatory violence propelled him to national prominence as a civil rights leader. Between 1963 and 1965, King’s national and international fame reached its peak. On 28 August 1963, King delivered his unforgettable speech ‘I Have a Dream’ at the interracial March on Washington. It had astonishing results. The following year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In July 1964, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act that prohibited the segregation of the public sphere and racial discrimination at workplace. Nevertheless, many people did not agree with the King’s ideology. For them, it was comfortable to live in the society where white people were superior to blacks. It led to King’s assassination on 4 April, 1968. Although his murderer believed that King’s death would put an end his influence on the US nation, he was wrong. King’s life and legacy were integrated into the national master narrative that depicts American history as an inexorable march toward the triumph of freedom. His 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is the part of the canon of America’s civil religion even nowadays (Donaghy 99-107)

Historical Context

Nevertheless, King’s ideology of non-violent protest would not have such support in the society if it had not been presented in the proper time. In other words, historical conditions (Civil Rights era – the March on Washington) created all conditions for King’s speech ‘I Have a Dream’ to reach the hearts of Americans. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was estimated to be the largest civil rights demonstration in the country’s history. King described its goals in such a way, “It will have a two-pronged purpose…to arouse the conscience of the nation on the economic plight of the Negro one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and to demand strong forthright civil rights legislation.” (qtd. In Hansen 16)He understood that he was required to deal with both supporters of this idea, such as President John F. Kennedy, and those who stood against it, such as white politicians who regarded blacks as uneducated and brutish. Therefore, King employed a two – pronged approach, making the speech conservative enough not to validate the fears of conservative politicians, yet liberal enough to demonstrate the need for change in the economy and social rights.

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Rhetorical Analysis of the Speech

As black people’s problems discussed in Kings’ speech ‘I Have a Dream’ were the actual drawbacks of the American society, King employs the method of Logos to reveal the problem.  For example, in a sentence, “America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”,  such tools of Logos as a logical syntactic structure and logical sequence of utterances have been applied by the author. Moreover, there are also many lexical expressive means, which help to achieve the goal of Logos. They are non-term law, political and economic vocabulary such as to cash a check, insufficient funds, bank, bankrupt, and so on. Nevertheless, there is one striking peculiarity in Logos employed by King. Since almost for all people, money and well-being are issues of primary concern, King describes the peculiarities of racism making an analogy with banking mechanism to show Americans that this problem is not less important. “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” Thus, it becomes clear that Logos, in this speech, serves as a tool of Ethos.

Nevertheless, in the speech, Ethos goes beyond the frames of Logos and is also characterized by unique methods of influence. With its help, King indicates that equality is not only the question of his generation, but also the issue, which marked the whole history of the US. To prove it, he employs the allusion to the President Lincoln. For example, it is obvious in a sentence, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the emancipation proclamation.” In addition, he uses the quotations from the Bible to underline a high ethical value of equality. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all fresh shall see it together.” King also refers to the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” to show that equality of races is not only the problem of common citizens, but also authorities and politics. However, simple ethical concerns do not have the power to reach the listeners’ hearts. That is why King bases both Logos incorporated in Ethos and Ethos itself on Pathos.

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Even from the title of King’s speech, it becomes clear that it is extremely insightful. It creates an atmosphere of intimacy as a person typically shares his or her dreams only with the dearest and nearest. In addition, a pathetic kind of persuasion can be noticed in many phrases inside the text. The first tool is direct contact with the audience. Using personal and possessive pronouns you, we, and our, as well as the word combination “my friends”, the author creates connection with the audience. “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” The use of first person singular and plural pronouns (I, we) and possessive pronouns (my, our) shows that the problem of equality should concern not only him personally, but the whole American nation. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.” The third tool is a direct emotional appeal to the audience with the help of emotionally colored words, imagery, lexical and syntactical expressive means, as well as stylistic devices. For example, many epithets are used to describe both positive and negative aspects of the situation. For example, opposition is used in the sentence, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” The antonyms in this context make the audience realize the current state of things in the same time implying that everything can be changed to the better. To describe the situation fully, King also employs metaphors and similes, “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.” Moreover, a special attention should be paid to the syntactic devices, such as anaphora, repetition, antithesis, and rhetorical question. Anaphora, as well as repetition, is used in the speech to put an emphasis on the most important aspects and make citizens take them into consideration. The repeated words and phrases are one hundred years later; we must; go back to; I have a dream; with this faith; let freedom ring. The main goal of antithesis is to show in opposition the drawbacks of racism and benefits of life without it, “…they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The rhetorical question is used to make citizens look into their souls and understand whether they want to live in the country of equality. “When will you be satisfied?” In general, all these methods of persuasion help King to bring the argument to support the necessity of equality not only to minds of listeners, but also to their hearts.

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Martin Luther King, the leader of the African – American Civil rights Movement, in his speech ‘I Have a Dream’, manages to persuade many Americans that racism is the greatest evil of their country. The secret of his success is based on the profound rhetorical skills and extraordinary combination of Logos, Ethos and Pathos. King employs Logos as part of Ethos to show that racism is an ethical problem, which brings negative consequences for the U.S nation.  Nevertheless, as this way of narration does not have the power to influence feelings and emotions of listeners, he applies Pathos to reach the hearts of the American citizens.