Rhetorical Analysis of “I Have a Dream”
Racism was and still is a big issue in the United States, during the mid-20th Century, which the most prominent form of racism was that of African-Americans. Although all blacks were supposed to be free, they were victimized mercilessly by the “White Man.” Therefore blacks decided to try and increase the amount of civil rights activists and change the corrupt law system. The most famous activist of them was Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the SCLC. Throughout the 1960s, King engaged in various civil rights boycotts and protests, helping the movement and gaining its eventual victory. Out of all of his civil rights-related efforts, the “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963. The speech had a massive impact as it managed to illuminate the racial problems of the time and provoke the audience into feeling sympathy while providing hope and faith to the victimized African-American population.
Sadly, the speech also made King very popular, making his opponents see him as a threat, causing him to be assassinated five years later and he was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The reason for “I Have a Dream’s” massive impact is due to the tense social mood of the time and that it reflects the conditions of the time, giving black activists a vision for the future. It struck directly into the hearts of blacks across America, and made whites ashamed of their actions. In just seventeen minutes, King influenced and informed generations and generations of people about racial equality and fairness. According to almost all scholars, the seventeen-minute speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric. This is obvious when analyzing the speech as one can notice that King carefully structures his speech to appeal to the different types of audiences, supporting it with the three rhetorical modes of ethos, pathos and logos which are reinforced.
The most important part of any speech is its structure, which is something King does extremely well by showing the plight of the African-Americans, showing the truth of the civil rights movement and that there is hope in the future. The speech’s structure is intended to appeal to the three types of audiences likely to be listening to King’s speech – the average blacks who are discriminated against, the average whites who harbor thoughts typical of that time, and the racist supremacists who argue that blacks are evil and the civil rights movement is too. In the first part of his speech, King paints a picture of the plight of the African-Americans and thoroughly describes their condition. For example, in the start of the essay, King says that the life of the blacks is “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” and that the blacks are living on a “lonely island of poverty” in the midst of a “vast ocean of material prosperity.” This first makes the whites realize how the blacks are in a terrible plight and make them dislike their actions while striking deep into the hearts of blacks as this paints out their situation. Further on, King continues to emphasize this by listing examples of the African-Americans’ problems. Also, King makes references to how America has broken their promise to the black community by refusing them the rights granted in the Constitution.
Many enemies of the movement say that activists of the movement act aggressively and use violence to seek their goals. This caused many people to lose their support for their movement. In order to stop this, King, who was a public face for the movement, states that they must conduct their struggle “on the high plane of dignity and discipline” and must not allow their “creative protest to degenerate into physical violence” for the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people.” Later, near the end of his speech, King continues to “preach” this point, for example by stating that he has a dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Through this, King intends to say that the African-Americans are not supported by the majority of the civil rights movement and that the movement is intent on reaching their goals in a non-violent manner. This also has the additional effect making the whites uncomfortable when they think how the blacks are not really the savages they think they are and are instead dignified, honorable people who continue to endure and that the whites are the true savage beasts.
However, this is not the end. After portraying multiple examples of white brutality and the pain of the black people, however, King knows that it is important to give the Negro people a message of hope. Therefore, at the very end, King starts to talk about the future and how one day, freedom will “ring” from all across the United States and how people of all races will be able to “join hands” and be “brothers and sisters.” Overall, King intelligently uses a well-planned structure to manipulate his audience into agreeing with him by painting an image of the African-American plight. In order to back up his basic structure King uses rhetorical modes, one of which is pathos, or the mode of utilizing human emotions, by making his audience no longer hate blacks and instead hate racism and wish for a new, better world. Other than pathos, King also utilizes the other two modes of rhetoric, ethos and logos, the art of using social ethics and logic and examples, although logos is used far less frequently compared to the other two modes. These two modes help in King’s structure to make the audience think that the whites have lied and broken their promises to the African-Americans. In summary, King’s speech utilizes the modes of ethos and logos in the first half of his speech when he refers to the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln signed century earlier. King writes in the very beginning that “five score years ago,” Lincoln signed the “Emancipation Proclamation” that declared slaves free and blacks were no longer to be treated like property. King uses this piece of evidence to show that even Lincoln, one of the most admired men in American history, supported the freeing of blacks, creating an ethos appeal through the logos of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Although all of the rhetorical strategies are interesting, the most important aspect is how they relate to each other and the effect they create. As the structure of “I Have a Dream” is vital to its success, King carefully tries to relate all of his rhetorical strategies with his structure. For example, part of King’s structure is intended to make the audience have mixed feelings about racism. To achieve this, King uses the rhetorical strategy of pathos along with metaphors and other rhetorical tropes and schemes to make the audience feel for the blacks. Also, King carefully chooses the rhetorical strategies in his essay in order to make them fit with the structure. For example, anaphora and parallelism combines in the speech to create the famous “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” repetition.
The constant repetition coupled with King’s deep inspirational voice serves to inspire the audience. After hearing these repetitions, the audience is filled with hope. This is in alignment with King’s structure as King intends for the end to be about hope for the future and those two repetitions both occur at the end. In brief, the rhetorical strategies of King’s speech combine to create a combining effect, supporting and reinforcing each other. In conclusion, Dr. King’s, most famous speech was the “I Have a Dream” speech given in 1963 during one of the most famous marches in history, the two hundred thousand strong “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” At the time, the American people were filled with racism and heavily segregated, making the lives of many blacks a living hell. “I Have a Dream,” however, played a major step into changing it. It managed to inspire a generation of blacks to never give up and made thousands of white Americans bitterly ashamed of their actions, forging a new start for society.
Even now, it continues to make generations of people, not just Americans, give up their racist beliefs and social colorblindness. Without King, America would be probably still heavily segregated. Other than the speech’s heartwarming and moving content, King’s effective structure along with the usage of all three rhetorical modes and certain rhetorical tropes and schemes has revealed the reason “I Have a Dream” as a masterpiece of rhetoric and it persuades hundreds of thousands of people support the blacks instead of treating them unfairly.
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