Analysis of a Political Speech: I have a Dream delivered by Martin Luther King

Analysis of a Political Speech: I have a Dream delivered by Martin Luther King

It may be an easy task for one to deliver a speech, but how do you feel about delivering a successful, powerful speech in front of over 200,000 audience as well as national television audience? A successful speech must have lots of criteria: a clear standpoint, an organized paragraph structure, catchy points, making good use of rhetorical tools and strategies… To explain the term “successful speech” in a few words, I would say that a successful speech has the power to make the targeted audience of all races, age and the classes they belong in the society being moved by the speaker. It sounds difficult, but the speech “I have a Dream” delivered by Martin Luther King is a demonstration of a successful speech. It is successful because King’s eloquent use of ethos, logos, and pathos, rhetorical devices such as tropes of relation, trope of addition, scheme of repetition and scheme of balance and tone used in his speech are able to persuade and infect the original audience to agree with him.

In the year of 1963, the African-American Civil Rights Movement in America gave King a chance to deliver his famous speech during the March on Washington on August 28th. At that time, the problem of race was becoming a national crisis. The African American was discriminated by the Caucasians and they were neglected by the government. The black race at that time craved and asked for freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality. When the time went by, and their wants were still not satisfied, the black race was sorely tired and raged. Violence was all over the place (Washington). It was under this situation that King stood up to deliver his speech for several causes. He wanted to encourage the black race not to give up their hopes for freedom and justice. He demanded that the black race should not fight for their rights by violence. And also, King knew that it was a great opportunity to gain support for the civil rights movement since the speech was delivered in front of over 200,000 audience as well as national television audience. King had delivered a great speech. The speech is successful and well-known for its eloquence, rhetorical tropes and schemes, such as making good use of some of the modes of persuasion as mentioned by Aristotle: pathos and ethos, which will be discussed in the next paragraph.
King used different modes in his speech, which are pathos and ethos. He took pathos as his main mode of persuasion in his speech. Aristotle discussed possible means of persuasion in his book Rhetoric such as logos, pathos and ethos. Pathos makes an appeal to someone’s emotions you entice their sentiments or fears. (Stanford Epgy) Ethos “is the standard value system of a community which is presented by a speaker. The speaker builds a reputation that is valuable and bares weight with the community.” (Stanford Epgy) King was an American clergyman and the son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was ordained in 1947 and became minister of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. In 1955 and 1956 he led the boycott of segregated city bus lines and in 1956 gained a major victory and prestige as a civil-rights leader when Montgomery buses began to operate on a desegregated basis. (Gunn) He was an authoritative man, as a Baptist minister , and also the most influential civil rights leader of his time. He was also a reverend, in touch with God, so in the Christian nation - America, King can easily establish credibility and reputation because of his religion. The audience was willing to believe in his words more easily. His speech relied heavily on pathos with a reason. At that time, his audience was formed by different classes and education level of people. King knew that the best way to get their support was to appeal to their emotions than delivering a speech with difficult terms that would bore the audience with low education background. King brilliantly started his speech by making a historical allusion to remind the audience that ex-American President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which brought joy “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 evokes pathos since the audience was reminded the way they should be treated and they would feel unjust that they were still being discriminated. And after that he mentioned one hundred years later, the black race did not get what they expected: freedom, equality and justice but segregation, discrimination and injustice which contrasted with the joy they had five score years ago. We can imagine that the audience at that time would agree with King’s words and at the start King had successfully made appeals to their sentiments. His next paragraph was about how the American government did not treat them as they promised when the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was established, which the promise was all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." King pointed out that America did not “honoring this sacred obligation” but giving” the Negro people a bad check…” , which is a metaphor, pointing out that the Negro were not treated as they should be. This evoked ethos because the audience was familiar with the promise made when the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was established, and they would give credit to King when he mentioned this historical event. At this point of his speech, some of the audience’ emotion would be exited by King’s words. King’s speech was not to disappoint the audience but to encourage them, so immediately he has enlightened the situation, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse…” The metaphor of “bank of justice is bankrupt” refers to there is no more justice in America. King told them not to believe that there was no more justice in America. This effectively encouraged the Negros not to abandon their hopes. King did not forget to remind the audience, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds”. He did not want people to enjoy justice and freedom with the help of violence. This evoked ethos since his words proved that he is a good moral leader. The audience would give credit to King for being a peacemaker. After this, he called on all Americans to make real the promises of democracy. He did not only encourage people to have hope, but he also told the whole America to act, to create a justice country hand in hand. King mentioned the seriousness “it would be fatal” if the nation did not solve this problem at once. This could not only remind the original audience, but the audience in front of home televisions that America was in dire need of their support and help. Later on in his speech, King talked about his deeply rooted American dream. Then he started every paragraph with his famous sentence,” I have a dream…” by telling his dreams of all Americans enjoying equality and justice, living together in harmony. This is a famous example of using anaphora, a kind of rhetorical tools which will be discussed later in this essay. This could give the audience the picture of future, a future that all Americans wish to reach. This evoked pathos since the audience would imagine the good future mentioned with by King and would feel hopeful. Near the end of his speech, King brought out the message that with faith, everything can be done. This encouraged audience to have faith in America and also in their future. King ended his speech singing a few sentences, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”. This evoke ethos since because many American’s beliefs are Catholics and Christians so they would give credits to King. They would be touched by his loyalty and passion to the religion. The audience would not only agree with his conclusion which was to make America a justice nation filled with freedom and equality, but also they would emotionally agreed with King since he made good use of pathos throughout the whole speech which entice their sentiments. King also makes good use of ethos helps him to establish trust and credibility from the audience which are important elements to form a successful speech. King’s speech appealed to audience’s emotions and common standard value not only by using pathos and ethos, but also by using various rhetorical tropes and schemes which creates more appeals to the audience.

A few of rhetoric tropes were used by King in his speech, such as tropes of addition and tropes of relation. Hyperbole is an example of tropes of addition. Hyperbole refers to “a figure of speech which contains an exaggeration of facts for emphasis”. (Stanford Epgy) At the beginning of his speech, King describes the pathetic situation of the Negro with exaggerated sentences, “millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”, “life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”, which is an example of hyperbole. In this speech, King uses hyperbole to emphasis the injustice and discrimination that the Negro suffers. The audience would sympathy the Negro’s sufferings with the help of King’s use of hyperbole. Allusion and metaphor are examples of tropes of relation. There are several allusions appeared in “I have a Dream”. Allusion refers to “a reference, explicit or implicit, to anything historical, literary, or religious that the author expects the reader to know” (Stanford Epgy) King quotes from the Holy Bible and also literary works. “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24)” and “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Isaiah 40:4-5)” are examples of Biblical allusion appeared in the speech. “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24)” and “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together (Isaiah 40:4-5)” are examples of Biblical allusion appeared in the speech. Using Biblical allusion helps the audience to establish trust and strong belief within him since many Americans have the same religion with King. He also sang “My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing…”, which is an American patriotic song, whose lyrics were written by Samuel Francis Smith. By singing this song which is well-known song among the Americans, King shows his audience how he loves his country, America, and how he wishes America can be the land of liberty. By expressing himself as a patriot, King can establish credibility from the audience. Metaphors were also found in his speech. Metaphor refers to “an implied comparison between two unlike things saying one is the other”. “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’…But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt” is an example of metaphor in King’s speech. In the above sentences, “cash a check” refers to the Negro were asking for freedom, justice and equality, which they were promised to have. “A bad check” refers to the Negros have failed to get back what they were asking for. In this speech, King’s use of metaphors of “check” could easily express the message that he wanted the audience to know, which was the Negro did not enjoy the rights they should have. King could also give the audience a greater impression by using metaphors in his speech. Not only tropes, but also schemes is an important elements to form a successful speech.

Scheme of repetition and scheme of balance are often used in King’s speech. Anaphora, climax, alliteration and assonance are examples of scheme of repetition. Anaphora is repeatedly used throughout the whole speech. Anaphora refers to “the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successful clauses.” (Stanford Epgy) Examples from the speech are the repetition of “one hundred years…” in the third paragraph, “Now is the time…” in the sixth paragraph, “We cannot…” in the later part of the speech and at last the famous sentence, “I have a Dream...”. Anaphora can create rhythms in the speech which brings strong and forceful impression. It also helps the speaker to emphasis the points that he/she wants to focus on. King wanted the audience to focus on the fabulous future of America that different races, classes in the society will be living in harmony. A successful impact is created by King since when people hear the sentence nowadays: “I have a dream”, and they will usually relate to King’s speech,” I have a Dream”. This proves that anaphora definitely can help audience to remember the speech and also its content. Climax refers to “the arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of increasing importance.” (Stanford Epgy) Examples of climax are “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” King arranged a series of related ideas which were about the Negros being unfairly treated that each surpasses the preceding in force. This helped to bring out the seriousness of the problem of the Negro being discriminated. His particular audience could felt the urge to change by listening to King’s examples. Climax helps to create solemnity and seriousness, which can entice the audience’s sentiments and fears. Besides anaphora and climax, alliteration and assonance are also schemes of repetition. Alliteration refers to “the repetition of initial consonants in adjacent words”. (Stanford Epgy) In King’s speech, “whose symbolic shadow we stand”, “cash a check”, “sweltering summer”, “dignity and discipline” are a few examples of alliteration. Assonance refers to “the repetition of similar vowel sounds in the stressed syllables of adjacent words”. In “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead”, “pledge” and “ahead” is a pair of assonance. Alliteration and assonance “are hallmark devices, used to bang home key points”. (Presentation helper) Scheme of balance includes antithesis and parallelism which are often used in King’s speech. Antithesis refers to “the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure”. (Stanford Epgy) Sentence such as “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” is an example of antithesis. In the above sentence, “dark and desolate valley” and “sunlit path”, “segregation” and “racial justice” are opposites. They are in such a great contrast describing the bad times of the Negros suffered and the great future that they would go through. The particular audience would be stunned by the hope of the good future by comparing to the dark times in this sentence. Antithesis is used to emphasis the speaker’s point, in this case, King wanted to reinforce his point about the hope and the splendid future of the Negros. “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds” is another example of antithesis. “Rightful place” and “wrongful deeds” is a pair of opposite. By using antithesis, King is able to contrast and strongly emphasis his points, which was to remind the Negros not to use violence while fighting for their rights. Antithesis creates montage effect that can bring out the importance of King’s points. In setting the opposite, an individual brings out of a contrast in the meaning which can appeal the audience. Parallelism refers to “similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.” There are a lot of parallelism examples in King’s speech, for example,“manacles of discrimination” and “chains of discrimination”. In this pair of parallelism, King expressed similarly to show that the ideas in the parts or sentences are equal in importance, which were about the injustice that the Negros were facing. “storms of persecution” and “winds of police brutality”, “heat of injustice” and “heat of oppression” are also examples of parallelism. Parallelism also adds balance and rhythm and, most importantly, clarity to the sentence. Making good use of tropes and schemes is a big step to become a successful speech in King’s situation.

“I have a Dream” is a successful essay not just only because all the rhetorical tools and modes skillfully used by King, but also the tone he used that appealed to both races also added light to it. Since King’s primary audience were the Negros, he did not use offensive words to censure Caucasians in his speech. Oppositely, he told the black race “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”. The tone of King’s speech is firm and mild. What he always reminded was peace, “the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”. Caucasians would felt secured and protected since King did not call on a revolt. King’s message to both races was to help each other to achieve freedom. Then both races of people, whether white or black would not be offended by his speech. This increased the chance of both races being persuaded by King. The tone of a speech is important when it comes to judging it as a successful essay. King’s speech is successful because the original audiences agreed with him. “As for the response of the audience, there was a lot of cheering and clapping, as well as amen’s. It was certainly a church-like experience.” (Tamucc)

In Martin King Luther’s speech, “I have a Dream” showed his eloquent use of ethos, , pathos and other rhetorical tropes and schemes, the peaceful tone he used in his essay and the original audience’s response shows that this is a profound and successful speech done by King.

Sources Cited
“I have a Dream Analysis” Presentation helper.

“Speech by Martin Luther King: I have a Dream” Tamucc
“Appealing to the Masses” Helen Gunn

“Martin Luther King, Jr : I have a Dream” American Rhetoric

Washington, James M. Introduction. Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. By Martin L. King