Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream Speech

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Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • King's Use of Sources and Logos in I Have a Dream
  • Rhetorical Link to the Audience in I Have a Dream
  • I Have a Dream and Ethos in King's Speech
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited


I have a dream…these are words we have all heard at one time or another. Words spoken by a revolutionary at one of the most revolutionary moments in American history. However, why is it that Martin Luther King Jr made such an impact on People? There were plenty of other talented and revolutionary writers and speakers at the time, so why is it that he made such an impact? There is no way to really say as there are many factors that could contribute to such a rise to success, but one aspect can definitely be contributed to his exceptional writing. Throughout his countless writings King displays not only a burning passion for the topic but a highly adapted and strength filled writing style. Although this may not be the only contributing factor to king’s success it definitely played a part, especially when it came to one of his most notable pieces “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This literary master piece perfectly exhibits the strengths of Kings writing and his use of Aristotle’s famous 'modes for persuasion' or “rhetorical appeals” Logos, Ethos, and pathos, to support and strengthen his stance.

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King's Use of Sources and Logos in I Have a Dream

The first and possibly most important strength demonstrated by King in his essay is his ability to actually back up his arguments through the use of sources. He does this through the use of the first side of the Aristotle Triangle of persuasion, Logos (or the appeal to logic.) Throughout his entire essay King not only presents well thought out arguments he also further solidifies the structure of said argument with the facts. One example of this is found when he defends his reasoning behind why negotiation failed to be a viable option to the situation He presents evidence from last September when “came the opportunity to talk with some of the leaders of the economic community. In these negotiating sessions, certain promises were made by the merchants.” However, these promises were never kept as presented by King showing that negotiation was already off the table. Another example king uses is Socrates to support his argument of the necessity of nonviolent tension. Saying “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths,” He believed the rise for nonviolent action was necessary, due to the fact that the oppressed will never be heard if they continue to “wait” He then defends his position by discussing why the non-oppressed rarely see the urgency in the cause and seldom giving up their privileges voluntarily. “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals” He then uses the example of St Thomas Aquinas who quotes “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Which certifies his idea of unjust vs just laws against the African American people. The idea that laws may appear just at the time because they are the norm but they may not necessarily be what is just, as in the case of Hitler who acted entirely legally under the law. It is the issue of the moderate becoming to complacent or to obsessed with “order” rather than justice.

Rhetorical Link to the Audience in I Have a Dream

The next key strength that King presents in his writing is his ability to connect to the emotions of his readers. He does this in three key ways by painting a vivid picture of oppression, by using a very mature tone, and pulling at the heart strings of the reader just a tad. He proves his ability to do this in Paragraph 11 of the letter he first sets up the paragraph by ending the previous with the line “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” then jumps into explaining that the “waiting” that is heavily talked about by oppressed has made them restless and fed up after 340 years of oppression. In this paragraph, he also does an effective job diving into the life of the oppressed how everyday they are humiliated by not being allowed to stay at a motel, or being forced to explain to their why they can’t do basic things like go to an amusement park. He explains that “when you are humiliated day in and day out” you will know why they can no longer wait. This paragraph does an extraordinary job essentially giving a face to the oppression, proving that is not just words that revolutionaries are spouting off, these are real everyday families having their rights kept from them. All due to the color of their skin. He also strengthens his position by Presenting his piece with a mature and respecting way, creating a tone that is sincere and mature. This is made clear right at the beginning of his essay where he addresses the clergy men not out of spite or anger but out of respect “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms”

I Have a Dream and Ethos in King's Speech

The final side of the Aristotle triangle of persuasion king displays is his use of Ethos to appeal to the ethics of the reader. By doing this King establishes not only his own credibility but the credibility of his writings. He does this through the use of biblical sources, which is the perfect tool, due to the fact he is writing to clergy men. Men whom claim to be serving the best/moral interest of God. So in order to appeal to his reader but also establish credibility he begins his essay by comparing his actions to the prophets of the eighth century B.C. when they “left their villages … as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled. …” He also reinforces the fact that he too is a clergy man by addressing them as his fellow clergy men. Showing that he is not a mere criminal writing this, he is a man of god, calling out these other so called “men of god.” He calls out not only the legitimacy of their law but also of their relationship with gob by discussing the words of saint Augustine and the difference between a just and unjust law. King writes “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” He then also discussing the point the clergy men make about him being an extremist in the most eloquent way possible, by bringing up other so called “extremist” from biblical history; such as Jesus, Amos, Paul and, Martin Luther. All of which fought for freedom and justice, just like himself.


King was an extremely talented writer who learned how to conquer Aristotle’s famous 'modes for persuasion,' and use the pieces to craft a masterful piece of literature. A talent that helped launch him into the role as a pivotal player in the desegregation of the west. Through his use of the different elements logos, pathos, and ethos; king managed to provide logical arguments that were not only backed up by logic but also adequate evidentiary support. King had a dream, and turned that dream from just words on paper into a revolution, proving how powerful words truly can be.

Works Cited

  1. King Jr., M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. The Atlantic Monthly, 212(2), 78-88.
  2. Miller, K. B. (2000). Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the struggle that changed a nation. Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. Shaefer, M. E. (2013). Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail". Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 5(08).
  4. Seal, G. (2018). Nonviolence as Compliance: The American Response to Black Lives Matter. Harvard Law Review, 129(4), 586-606.
  5. Fairclough, A. (2001). Martin Luther King Jr. University of Georgia Press.
  6. King Jr., M. L. (1968). I've been to the mountaintop. In A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (pp. 199-215). Warner Books.
  7. Lartey, P. (2002). In living color: an intercultural approach to preaching. Westminster John Knox Press.
  8. Cone, J. H. (2011). The cross and the lynching tree. Orbis Books.
  9. West, C. (1991). The ethical dimensions of Marxist thought. Monthly Review Press.
  10. Washington, J. M. (2013). Creating a Sense of Urgency: A Rhetorical Analysis of Letter from Birmingham Jail. Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 7.

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