Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a Dream' Speech

Modified: 28th Jul 2021
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On August of 1963, Civil Rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., made his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. In this memorable speech, King confronts the lack of free will that African Americans had in society. One of the largest demonstrations seen by the nation's capital was conveyed to thousands of Civil Rights activists that shared a common goal of being treated as equal citizens. King carefully structures his speech to appeal to the different types of audience, supporting it with elements such as metaphors, repetition, and symbolism to efficiently create an impact on the audience. These rhetorical strategies display techniques of ethos, logos, and pathos that allow the audience to sufficiently connect with Martin Luther King Jr’s message.

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Martin Luther King Jr. produces an enforced emotional appeal to the audience by using pathos, and making them feel empathy for the way slave owners treated African Americans for centuries. For example, King compares African Americans as living in a “lonely island of poverty” to everyone else indulging in an “ocean of material prosperity.” (King, par. 2) Later in his speech, he uses a metaphor when stating that racism is a “dark and desolate valley” while racial justice represents a “sunlit path." (King, par. 5) This quote gives hope to the audience of living in a unified and improved country where freedom remains a right to every citizen. It offers hope to the African American community as well, that without prejudice, society could climb onto the sunlit path of racial justice. King effectively utilizes pathos techniques in his speech to guide the emotions of viewers along with his plans of living in a country filled with ambition.

Martin Luther King utilizes the element of repetition throughout his speech as it uses emotional appeals towards the audience. The most prominent use of repetition throughout his speech is when he says, “I have a dream...” King repeats this expression as he progressively develops an idea of what his ideal future entails. It becomes a type of anthem as he paints a picture of a developed country in which there are cultural unity and equality among races.  An example is when he says, “I have a dream that my four 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, par. 18) King appeals to the emotions of the intended audience by making a point that he's a father and desires to live a life where his children would experience a better future than he did. This memorable quote emotionally stands out because it causes the audience to consider their children. None of the parent’s watching the speech would want to see their child face discrimination due to the color of their skin. The repetition technique expertly shows how different American reality is from the country’s history. Martin Luther King Jr's speech not only acquires a quality that is of the moment, but also one that is transcendent of it. This backs up his pathos appeals as the speech’s constant repetition is exceedingly useful for arousing the audience’s emotions. King reminds his audience that civil rights activists will continue to fight for the freedom of all individual as long as they continue to have faith in the dream of equality and freedom.

Apart from his use of emotional appeals, Martin Luther King Jr. efficiently utilizes social ethics and logic in his speech. King’s logic about the Civil Rights Movement represents a way many individuals of that period thought, but never willingly took it upon themselves to make a change. King begins with the phrase, “Five score years ago,” This refers to the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln signed to declare the freedom of African American slaves. King states that, despite the proclamation, African Americans were still not free; they faced extreme discrimination and segregation. He uses the credibility of Lincoln because he was an admired president that fought for African American equality. By using a former president as an example, King undoubtedly gains the trust of viewers and creates an ethos appeal through the logos of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

There are numerous examples of symbolism that occur throughout King’s speech in attempt to connect with the crowd and demonstrate an appeal of emotion and logic. In his second passage, King uses symbolism to compare segregation to a “bad check,” meaning that America had failed to deliver the empty promises the country had endlessly broken. King speaks on behalf of the African American community when stating that they refuse to believe that there is not enough justice to provide equality for all citizens. He believes it is possible to “cash this check” and receive the full benefits of freedom and equality. King uses the first person plural, “we” and refers to the Civil Rights Movement as “my people” on several occasions to symbolize brotherhood. An example of this is when he says, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt” (King, par. 4) He urges them to remember that in order to achieve their goals, they should not let hatred or bitterness affect their actions. Acting as a conceptual helix, King’s idea of unity brings together the speech’s theme of togetherness.

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Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the power to inspire millions of people and persuade them to fight for their freedom. In only 17 minutes, King informed multiple generations of people about racial equality and fairness. This speech demonstrates the metaphors, repetition, and symbolism needed to develop an emotional, credible, and logical appeal. At a time where racial minorities obtained no freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out for what he believed in and inspired America to become the unified country it is today.

Works Cited:

  • “Transcript of Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. August 28, 1963. Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.” Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1962 Speech, www.analytictech.com/mb021/mlk.htm.


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