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Martin Luther King is a landmark figure in black history whose public addresses made a specific imprint in the hearts and minds of many people in the U.S. King’s speech “I have a dream” is an excellent example of rhetorically sound appeal to masses due to the fact that this speech is often cited, referred to in dialogues, and is studied in classes. In addition, not all parts of the speech are equally powerful in its persuasive quality, which creates a field for further analysis. In terms of strength and persuasive characteristics, the part of the speech, where King, makes an appeal to the Declaration of Independence is the most effective because he uses all three modes of appeal and combined, they are rather powerful, given the context.
Context Fitness as a Defining Element of Argument Strength
Within this essay, the strength of a speech or its part is understood as its ability to fit into context as it is produced to address a specific problem or, rather, a range of problems. While in different paragraphs King appeals to many aspects of the same problem of justice and equality in regard to black people, the speech was a part of a March for Jobs and Freedom. Thus, the context of the speech was economic and political, which the passage about “cashing the check” addresses directly.
One of the most vivid uses of rhetorical modes demonstrated by King in his speech was the appeal towards the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. As these two documents are considered the sources of law and human rights in the United States, in the context of a march for provision and maintenance of those rights among all citizens is highly relevant and persuasive. King evoked the strongest possible argument for the equality of black and white people by providing a citation stating that all men have “unalienable Rights” (King). If a black person is a citizen of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence give them the same rights as to the other citizens, which is a very powerful statement that can doubtfully be disproved.
Furthermore, based on this data King points out that in fact, the constitutional rights and freedoms are not provided in full as black people are still oppressed which is a major inconsistency in the country which needs to be addressed. Such interpretation is indeed powerful and persuasive as well as appealing to the context of the March, and overall political and social situation in the U.S. One may argue here that the later paragraphs of the speech devoted to concrete examples of abuse could be more illustrative of the situation and be a better basis for King’s claims.
Indeed, the facts of abuse can be invaluable when laying the foundation of the premise that the problem is real. Yet, the broader agenda of the movement was stating why the civil rights action must be taken. And the appeal to the founding documents of the country provided an abundant evidence of the flawed nature of current policies.
Pathos appears to be the second strongest rhetorical appeal in the chosen passage. King uses such words as “lonely”, “crippled,” “poverty,” “exile,” “shameful,” and other words laden with emotion to evoke the sad feelings and prepare the audience for his call to action. He deliberately invokes and stirs negativity in people to argue that it is indeed righteous and needs to be channeled into the fight for freedom and equality.
From describing the present status of African American population in the U.S., he then transitions to explaining that it is unfair and unjust by appealing to the Constitution, and urges the people to “cash this check” for all their misfortunes (King), suggesting that there is still hope that justice prevails in this country. The brilliance of the logic and smart use of a combination of rhetorical modes is what distinguishes this couple of paragraphs from the rest of the speech. Since this part is the beginning of the speech, King managed to relay the essence, motives, and reasons of the Civil Rights Movement in about a minute.
Such exceptional utilization of pathos so early in the address will later help him make a case for other topics, which demonstrates the fact that such decision was purposeful. It should also be noted that the metaphorical use of economic terminology such as “cash,” “check,” “bankrupt,” “capital,” and “fund” appeals to the overall poor financial situation of the black people at the time, which is completely on point in the context of the March for Jobs and Freedom (King). The appeal to the social as well as the economic vulnerability of the blacks should have tingled the senses of the audience.
Ethos is evoked through the use of a pronoun “we” which unites the speaker and the audience and provides King more authority to speak on behalf of the black community. It is a subtle technique that is frequently used by politicians which allow the public to see a speaker as “one of their own” and, thus, believe the words he says (Tyrkkö). While this technique does not radically change King’s authority in the face of his audience as he has every right to speak for the crowd and Civil Rights Movement, it still adds an element of comfort to listener’s experience.
In addition to that, when saying, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” he projects his own thoughts and feelings towards others, even if they do not share it (King). By doing so, King unities and homogenizes all civil rights activists and common people under the common cause, which adds to the persuasion quality of his speech. Moreover, the use of “we” fits the context, as in King’s idea, all people despite their skin color should live together as brothers.
On the other hand, this section is not the best demonstration of ethos in the King’s speech. No other notes of his credibility as one of the Civil Rights Movement leaders were present. One may speculate that the reason for that is the absence of need for the ethos in this particular case. As the majority of the audience were presented by black people, they probably knew King and his achievements, so the context did not require him to reaffirm his authority (Berman).
Optimal use of rhetorical appeals transformed the chosen section of the King’s speech into a powerful and logically complete message that is both understandable and fitting to the context. King appealed to the senses of the audience by using emotional language and economic terms in a metaphorical sense. He established closeness with people by using a first-person plural pronoun. Finally, he established the foundation for his claims invoking the strongest evidence possible in the face of the founding documents. All of these combined produced an effective statement that set the stage for the rest of the speech which is why it is the most powerful argument.
Berman, Mark. “The March on Washington’s 50th Anniversary.” Washington Post. 2013. Web.
King, Martin. Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream. Web.
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Tyrkkö, Jukka. “Looking for Rhetorical Thresholds: Pronoun Frequencies in Political Speeches.” Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English, vol. 17, 2016. Web.