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Martin Luther King Rhetorical Analysis

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Dreaming About Freedom

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most successful and most legendary speeches in United States history. Martin Luther King Jr. was a masterful speaker, who established a strong command of rhetorical strategies. By his eloquent use of ethos, logos, and pathos, as well as his command of presentation skills and rhetorical devices, King was able to persuade his generation that "the Negro is not free" (King 1). His speech became the rallying cry for civil rights and lives on as an everlasting masterpiece.

It is necessary to first understand King's arguments before delving into the actual analysis. King's main argument is that African-Americans are not free or equal according to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. He argues that African-Americans must claim their full rights and demand liberation from inequality and suppression. King's audience is not only African-Americans, he persuaded all Americans to take action to achieve freedom. He asserts that freedom must be achieved without violence or loss of dignity through Americans joining together in solidarity. Finally, he laid out his dream of a free America rooted in brotherhood among all citizens.

Martin Luther King Jr. is able to successfully convey his argument to his audience through ethos. He was an authoritative man, as a Baptist minister, he is seen as a good moral leader. He commanded respect, therefore people were more apt to take his side and accept his speeches as ultimate truths. He is seen as credible because he delivered his speech intelligently. He uses a heightened vocabulary, demonstrated by such words as "manacles," "languished," and "redemptive" (King 1, 2). Not only did he use intelligent vocabulary, he also presents his speech in a logical and professional form. He delivers his beliefs sincerely further aiding his ethos appeal. Martin Luther King Jr. also utilizes ethos because as an American, he can relate to his audience.

King also uses logos by using past documents and events to contribute to the success of his speech and support of his argument. He refers to the principles voiced by the nation's founders in his appeal for racial equality. This strategy was especially important in light of the fact that the government was concerned that the Civil Rights movement might discredit the United States abroad. The government was worried that if they gave African-Americans freedom, the United States would be seen as weak and have been persecuting innocent people. Hence, it was perceptive of King to imply in the speech that he is not undermining the United States, but asking the country to do justice to the principles that were asserted to be the backbone of U.S. politics and society. King states, for example, that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream," (King 2) and that he dreams of a day when Americans "will be able to sing with new meaning `My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing'" (King 3). King then uses the words of that song to distinguish the different areas of the country where he hoped the United States would soon "let freedom ring" (King 3) for all its citizens. King alludes to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as being a "promissory note" (King 1) to all citizens, which those at the march were claiming as their inheritance. The speech gains power from King's stressing that he was asking the United States to live up to its principles and thus to fulfill the greatness of its pronounced creed.

More so than either ethos or logos, King masterfully utilizes pathos to affect his audience. He references a Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" (King 4) which evokes an emotional response from the largely black audience, as well as all other individuals who respected freedom. Also aphorisms, such as "Let freedom ring," (King 3) invoked strong feelings in his audience. King's word choice allowed the audience to become more sentimentally attached to the speech. For instance, phrases such as, "we refuse to believe", "our hope", "we can never be satisfied", and "our destiny" (King 1, 2, 3) evokes the emotions that King wanted the audience to have. He convinced his audience to accept his dreams and hopes, as well as agree with his disapproval of current conditions.

In addition to ethos, logos, and pathos, the presentation of "I Have a Dream" adds another element to the speech. When King wants to emphasize a point, and significantly inspire the crowd, he raised his tone of voice and added inflection. Additionally, he periodically raised one or both hands to the sky. He did not rush his speech; rather, he clearly articulated his words and said them in a loud and at a relatively slow-paced speed. He paused in between words, so the audience could fully comprehend each of his thoughts before proceeding.

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