Appealing to the Masses: The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream"

by Helen Gunn

Professor Ann Clutinger
English 207 Paper
May 27, 2001

Topic: Analyze the rhetoric used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech, "I Have a Dream."

Thesis: Dr. King's choice of approach, style and content was driven by his audience.

Appealing to the Masses: The Rhetoric of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream"

Nineteen sixty-three was an important year for the civil rights movement in America, as well as an important year for that movement's leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The problem of race had reached a state of crisis. In May, an appalled nation watched demonstrations turn ugly as the head of the Birmingham police department ordered dogs and fire hoses turned on young protestors. In June, over adamant objections of Alabama and Mississippi state governors, President John F. Kennedy authorized federal officials to escort black students to those states' college campuses. Governor George Wallace had to be physically removed from his barricade of a University of Alabama doorway. On June 12, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered on his front porch in Jackson, Mississippi. And in September, four black girls were killed by a bomb thrown into a Birmingham church. Racial unrest had increased, no solutions were readily apparent, and violence was becoming commonplace (Washington 101).

In the midst of this year of instability and violence, King produced two of his best known works. While jailed for disobeying a court injunction forbidding him to lead demonstrations in Birmingham, King wrote the calm, well-reasoned "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to concerned community leaders, explaining his participation in those protests. As keynote speaker for the March on Washington in August, King delivered his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream." In contrast to the cool and collected style of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "Dream" is highly emotional, a hopeful vision of the future of race in this country. King realized that the March, with an attending crowd of over 200,000 as well as a national television audience, would be the perfect opportunity to gain support for the civil rights movement. He aimed to persuade his audience of the righteousness of the cause, encourage them to not abandon hope, and admonish them that "[i]n the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds," declaring his belief that nothing positive is accomplished through violence (King). He designed his speech with those goals in mind. King's understanding of the size and composition of his audience determined the rhetorical choices he made while composing his speech.

It is important to understand that while hoping to influence the attitudes of an entire nation, King was primarily addressing a black audience. He spoke of generations of injustice, and referring to the recent increase in violence, stressed the importance of remaining non-violent. He warned against an attitude of distrust toward "our white brothers" who "have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom [. . .] as evidenced by their presence here today." He is obviously speaking directly to black Americans. Because of this focus, King made rhetorical choices he knew would be familiar to a black audience with a shared cultural background. Those choices have proven powerful to people of all races, but they were selected with a black American audience in mind. In the remainder of this paper, the reasons for King's rhetorical choices are frequently attributed to their special impact on black Americans, but it should be stressed that the effectiveness of these choices crossed all racial boundaries.

King wanted to persuade a country. How could he do this? Over two thousand years ago Aristotle discussed possible means of persuasion in his three volume work, Rhetoric. He defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion," and stated that there are three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos and pathos. Ethos relies on the projected personal character of the speaker - the audience is swayed by the speaker's moral integrity. Logos depends on the rationality or apparent rationality of the words of the speech - do the facts appear true as presented? Pathos requires moving the audience into a certain frame of mind - exciting their emotions to gain their approval (Aristotle 4). While all three methods are necessary to effective persuasion, King purposefully selected pathos as his primary method of appeal. He knew there would be wide differences of class and education in his large and diverse audience. While many might be bored by a lengthy and detailed accounting of needed legislation and activism, most would instinctively respond to a call for patriotism and spirituality. King appealed to both of these using an array of rhetorical styles, techniques and devices.

Harry Reed, a Professor of History at Michigan State University, has concluded that King did not fulfill his political obligations with this speech. While Reed calls the speech "comforting and enduring," he decries its "unfortunate omission of politics," and claims it to be a "liability in our collective historical memory." Reed believes that King implied the process of winning civil rights would be easy, and that his conciliatory tone failed to prepare America for his eventual anti-war activism. He would have preferred a speech that outlined the policy and program needed to achieve black equality, favored a call for specific legislation, and gave instruction to the audience regarding appropriate activism (Reed 154). In other words, Reed would have chosen logos (as opposed to pathos) as the speech's primary means of persuasion. He makes a good point that the speech lacked substance: it contained neither politics nor detailed programs. However, if King had emphasized strategic detail, "I Have a Dream," would have been a completely different speech, would not have accomplished the goals King had in mind, and more importantly, would not have touched so many people over a period of so many years.

Early in the sixties, at the time of King's speech, building fervor for the cause of civil rights was as important as spelling out specifics. Drawing upon years of public speaking experience, King knew an emotional speech would have greater impact upon a large, outdoor crowd. He was allotted ten minutes (although he used fifteen) and appreciated the limitations of such a severe time restriction. Quite frankly, King was also maneuvering politically. Before the speech, he and others had decided to avoid any appearance of militancy in order to maintain the support of President John F. Kennedy who was then promoting the war in Vietnam (Reed 154). For all of these reasons, I believe King wisely chose to appeal emotionally to the audience. He presented a beautiful and compelling vision of equality that inspired the crowd, expanded his national audience and ensured their attention to future messages. He wanted to reach the "masses" - and did so.

To inspire the crowd, to imbue his speech with an "emotional and spiritual quality," King utilized the delivery style of the black folk pulpit of which he was master (Reed 153). The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, King gave his first sermon at eighteen years of age and was ordained at twenty-five - he had a lifetime of experience to call upon. Through many generations of black Americans, these vocal styles and rhythms had been finely honed to accomplish exactly what King had in mind for "Dream:" connecting with the crowd, stirring their emotions, confirming their belief in the righteousness of the cause, and delivering a speech which would not soon be forgotten.

In his critique of "Dream" for the Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Keith Miller labeled King's black-pulpit delivery style a "call and response interaction with listeners that sends an electric charge back and forth between pulpit and pew" (Miller 27). Terry Kohlenberg, Communications instructor at Mesa College in San Diego, calls this interactive style of communication transactional. This is opposed to the linear style used in most white Christian churches where the pastor preaches and the congregation listens. King's primarily black audience in Washington would have been comfortable with this participatory style of speaking.

In another "time-honored trademark of black sermonizing," King structured his speech in what Miller labels a "calm-to-storm" manner (Miller 26). He begins slowly and calmly: outlining the history of freedoms promised the black citizens of this country, the betrayal of those promises, and cautioning the nation that the patience of black citizens has reached a crisis, "the whirlwinds of revolt will continue [ . . . ] until the bright day of justice emerges" (King 2). Biding his time, he waits to heighten emotion until the anaphoric "we cannot be satisfied" series in the middle of the speech. Here, he touches on such emotional topics as black children who have been "stripped of their dignity" and black citizens not allowed to vote in Mississippi. By the time he reaches the "I have a dream" segment toward the end of his speech, King is impassioned, employing the rich, ringing tones he must have used in his Sunday sermons. He presents a promising picture of equality and salvation from the suffering experienced by so many generations of his people. He asks his audience to keep faith upon their return home.

Keeping faith has been a long, continuous journey for black Americans. Through years of illiteracy their belief in a Christian God was kept alive through the telling and re-telling of stories, songs and spirituals. A good sermon was often repeated, not only by its original author, but by other pastors as well. This created a commonality among geographically-separated black congregations. In "Dream," King uses this shared knowledge, these shared stories to connect with his audience. He alludes to familiar Biblical scripture and characters, and focuses on a theme close to their hearts: deliverance.

Miller points out that by connecting the righteousness of the civil rights cause with Scripture, King moves his speech into a realm which can not be disputed. It cannot be challenged because it is Biblical; it is the word of God (Miller 28). King quotes from Amos, an Old Testament prophet who attacks social evils and declares that mere words and shallow offerings are not enough, that "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" (The Ryrie Study Bible, Amos 5:24). Like Amos, King is calling for justice rather than mere words of conciliation.

To express his hope for the future, King borrows phrases from Isaiah, another Old Testament figure, who predicts future blessings even though his people are about to go into exile. The difficult way will one day be made smooth: "Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley" (The Ryrie Study Bible, Isaiah 40:4). King has joined his voice with those of the prophets, infusing it with the spiritual authority of the Bible.

King continues religious references throughout the speech, closing with words from an old Negro spiritual. These words, "Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last," also deal with the theme of deliverance (King). Referring to scripture, using the delivery style of the pulpit, King imbues his speech with a spiritual quality. These Biblical references lend credence, a sense of a sacred destiny to his words, inspiring his audience in their pursuit of justice with the belief they are doing the work of God.

King also appeals to feelings of patriotism as a means of motivating the crowd. The March on Washington, while primarily a freedom demonstration, was also a celebration of the one hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. King delivered his speech from in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a setting that surely added powerful imagery to his speech. After a brief introductory sentence, King begins with "Fivescore years ago," phrasing reminiscent of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and familiar to all. He continues referring to Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, reminding the audience that even one hundred years later, "the Negro still is not free" (King). The promise of that Proclamation has yet to be fulfilled.

King then turns back almost another hundred years to the promises of earlier American documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He calls "for that one day [when] this nation [ . . . ] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'" and "that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, [will] be guaranteed the 'unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'" (King). He asks America to finally make good on those promises. Near the end of his speech, King continues the patriotic theme by including lyrics from the song, "My Country 'tis of Thee:"

'My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my father died, land of the pilgrim's pride,
from every mountain side, let freedom ring.'
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. (King)

King calls upon feelings of both patriotism and spirituality to reach his audience and to convince the country of the morality of his message.

King also selected particular stylistic devices to accomplish his goal. He obviously had a favorite, using the device of anaphora seven times in this relatively short speech. According to our classroom packet "Sentence Types," anaphora is an "intensifying," stylistic device, making it the perfect choice for a speech designed for maximum emotional impact (Clutinger 15). But King's choice of anaphora was certainly not unique to this speech. According to Miller, anaphoric schemes are used abundantly in the black oral tradition, used to assist listeners in remembering the message (Miller 26). At the end of "Dream," King builds an anaphoric series based on the final lyrics of the song, "My Country tis of Thee." In this series, King tells his audience to "Let freedom ring" for "all of God's children" from every geographical location in the country. The religious and patriotic overtones ring loud and clear.

The "I have a dream" anaphoric sequence, set about two-thirds through the speech, is probably the best known and has given the speech its name. In this series, King describes his dream for this country. It is a dream "deeply rooted in the American dream" (King). It is a dream that soon, black and white Americans will perceive each other as equals. It is a dream that the years of black suffering will soon be over. King's "I have a dream" sequence creates a stirring vision of hope.

Employing another stylistic device, reification, King creates memorable images. This device compares the abstract with the concrete (Clutinger 24). For example, King cautions against satisfying the "thirst" for freedom "by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." He is comparing the tangible act of quenching thirst with the intangible need for freedom. In another example, King describes the unrest of black America as "shake[ing] the foundations of our nation" until all citizens are treated as equals. This is not a mildly simmering unrest, or an unrest which nags at the back of the mind. This unrest has the power and momentum of a whirlwind which only justice can calm.

In another, more developed example of reification near the beginning of his speech, Dr. King recalls the promises made to this country's citizens by its forefathers. He compares black America's demands for justice to the physical act of presenting a check to be cashed - and the prejudicial treatment of people of color as "America default[ing] on this promissory note." He continues building this image by portraying that promise as a check presented to black Americans, a check that is returned marked insufficient funds. There are definite implications of dishonesty: the promise was given (The Declaration of Independence), the promissory note handed over (The Emancipation Proclamation), but payment on that note still has not been made. The effectiveness of this device lies in its ability to connect an abstraction with a clear, easy-to-picture image. The need for justice is as basic as the need to quench one's thirst, expecting promises to be kept as commonplace as assuming one's payroll check will be honored.

King, a master stylist, used a variety of rhetorical techniques in his speech. "Dream" needed to touch a wide range of people: people from different geographical locations, with different education backgrounds, of different color. King foresaw the importance of the March, knew he had a real opportunity to be heard by millions. He recognized the difficult demographics of the situation. The audience would be enormous and distractions would be unavoidable in the wide-open outdoor venue. He also understood that the patience of black Americans was too sorely tried: black Americans would no longer be appeased with mere promises. And while understanding their frustration, King passionately wanted to convince the crowd to pursue their cause without violence. Because he understood of all of this, King chose not to focus on detail, not to focus on strategy. He appealed to the crowd's higher emotions of spirituality and patriotism; God was on their side, their struggle would be rewarded.

Close to forty years later, "I Have a Dream" is still considered a profound work, studied in both literature and speech classes. Its rhetoric is the subject of hundreds of papers. "Dream" is a masterpiece which describes, with wisdom and compassion, a people's long struggle for equality. Close to forty years later, I wonder what speech Dr. King would compose today. How similar would it be? Close to forty years later, he could certainly be proud that his words still speak with power and inspire us to work for equality.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. The Internet Classics Archive. 4 Nov. 2000 <>.

Clutinger, Ann. "Sentence Structure." Packet 2178. Spring 1998.

King, Martin L., Jr., "I Have a Dream." Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Ed. James M. Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1986. 101-106.

Miller, Keith. "Voice Merging and Self-Making: The Epistemology of I Have a Dream." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 19.1 (1989): 22-31.

Reed, Harry A. "Martin Luther King, Jr.: History and Memory, Reflections on Dreams and Silences." The Journal of Negro History 84.2 ( 1999): 150-66.

The Ryrie Study Bible. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Th.D., Ph.D., gen. ed. Chicago: Moody Press.


Washington, James M. Introduction. Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. By Martin L. King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper, 1986. 101-102.

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