Example Of Essay On “I Have A Dream” Speech Rhetorical Analysis

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Rhetoric, Speech, Martin Luther King, Appeal, Supreme Court, I Have A Dream, United States, America

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/09/22

“I Have a Dream Speech” Rhetorical Analysis

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most memorable speeches of all time on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his “I Have a Dream” speech. Entrenched in the Civil Rights battles of the 60’s, this speech has since become arguably the most notable and influential Civil Rights speech in American history. Timed in accordance with the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, King gave this speech as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally. It brought together the nation’s most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, and a crowd of hundreds of thousands (Younge, 2013). Because of its historical influence, the “I Have a Dream Speech” displays a strong use of rhetorical appeals which are the main reasons why it is so popular long after it was actually given. Martin Luther King Jr. uses appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos in such a way that the speech will likely forever be remembered in American history.
The first type of rhetorical appeal King uses is ethos, or the ethical appeal. Ethos, which is Greek for character, refers to the speaker establishing his credibility and trustworthiness (Weida, 2013). Of course, King was already established as a major civil rights leader by 1963, as his calls for non-violent protests were heard nationwide. Because of this King already had some credibility established before even giving the speech. However, there are still strong uses of ethos within the actual text of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

King establishes his credibility, or ethos, in giving this speech as early as his second sentence. King says:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 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 (King, 1963).
In this quote, King is referencing Lincoln, both in the Gettysburg Address and his signing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Gettysburg address began with the famous phrase, “Four score and seven years ago (Lincoln, 1863)” and King, by beginning his speech this way, likely did so with Lincoln in mind. Why is Lincoln useful to establish credibility on the issue of civil rights? Lincoln, in many ways, started the fight for civil rights, and this reference shows King’s historical knowledge of African American history and the significance Lincoln played.
However, there is another section in the speech that establishes his credibility of promoting non-violence, which was a central message of King’s regarding the fight for civil rights. King said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence (King, 1963).” Once again, King is showing his commitment to peace at all costs, and the “I Have a Dream” speech reinforces that message.
The second type of rhetorical appeal King uses within his speech is pathos, or appealing to the audience or their emotions. Pathos is a way for the audience to identify with the speaker, usually through emotions, but also with the speaker’s perspective (Weida, 2013). The “I Have a Dream” speech is loaded with emotional appeals, and is probably the main type of rhetorical appeal used by King. Many of the examples following the “I have a dream” or “Let freedom ring” phrases at the end of the speech are pathos. In fact, the second half of the speech is heavy with emotional appeal and King trying to get listeners to identify with his perspective. He does this at the end of speech most likely to keep these emotions strong, and lead all those who were listening to his to speech to take action and help fight the injustice in this system.
King paints vivid pictures of how he foresees life, free from racism or discrimination. He uttered the famous words, “I have a dream that my four little 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, 1963).” This statement helps the audience identify with his perspective, but also shows how passionate he is about the civil rights movement in general. King closes his speech the greatest emotional appeal in the entire speech. He says:
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day 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 (King 1963)!
Those words, when simply read, are powerful, calling for all people to unite. He is appealing to virtually every single person in America, which is a form of pathos. The Biblical references are another tool King uses to help people identify with him and his movement. The closing words of the speech best show how powerful the rhetorical appeal of pathos can be.
Finally, King uses the rhetorical appeal of Logos, or persuading someone by the use of reason or logic (Weida, 2013). King’s reasoning for the cause of civil rights and equality among all people is based on his understanding of the founding documents of America. In his speech King cites the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as reasons for why the injustice cannot continue. He says:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds (King, 2013).
King is taking note of the blatant hypocrisy present in a country that promises freedom and liberty for all people, and yet fails to do so regarding matters of race. His reasoning is sound, and although there are more examples of injustice documented throughout the speech, this argument for civil rights is ultimately rooted in the founding documents of the United States.
The “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the greatest speeches in American history, supported by its extensive usage of rhetorical appeal. King knew what he was doing when writing that speech and is shown first by establishing his credibility, followed by showing his logical reasoning for his position, and ending with a powerful emotional appeal. Because of these things, this speech will likely be forever remembered, both for its historical significance and as a great example of rhetorical appeal.


King Jr., M. (1963, August 1). Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech - American Rhetoric. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
King Jr., M. (1963, August 28). Text of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a Dream' speech. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/aug/28/martin-luther-king-i-have-a-dream/
Lincoln, A. (1863, November 19). The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm
Weida, S. (2013, March 11). Using Rhetorical Strategies for Persuasion. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/588/04/
Younge, G. (2013, August 9). Martin Luther King: The story behind his 'I have a dream' speech. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/09/martin-luther-king-dream-speech-history

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