I have a Dream



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I Have a Dream


Bryanth Perez
Communication Criticism
Prof. Kate Rogness
December 5, 2013
FA2013

I. I Have a Dream

Racism and inequality are two of the most relevant topics in history, and still today. These subjects are often uncomfortable for many people. Although racial discrimination still takes place today, without Martin Luther King Jr. it could be much worse than it is. His famous speech “I Have a Dream” was delivered on August 28, 1963 to over 250,000 civil rights activists in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The dream that King spoke of in his speech was to bring an end to racism in the United States and live in a world of freedom and equality. It was a speech that would go down in history, and it was a crucial moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. The main objective of his speech was to portray a future with equality between races and show, not only the United States, but an international audience that racism needed to be stopped. King knew that something needed to be done. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves, he felt as if African American’s were still not free, as racism was still very prevalent. His speech affected millions of people and, to this day, remains one of the most iconic speeches of all time.


An in-depth analysis of Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream” is warranted because it altered the face of racism and was the beginning of change in the United States. His speech not only touched millions of people, but it was the beginning to the end of racism. Many people would argue that racism is still very widespread today. Although this may be true, it is not nearly as bad as it was. During the time King delivered this speech, black people had no rights and segregation was still legal. Without an activist such as Martin Luther King, nothing may have ever been done about racism or segregation. This speech was a turning point in the civil rights movement. A thorough analysis of King’s speech will help to understand just how powerful his speech was, and show the different ways he persuaded his audience. By using many different communication theories, King touched his audience and brought forth emotions from each and every person. In this essay I will argue that rhetorical situation is a fitting theoretical framework in explaining how King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was effective.
In this essay I will discuss the context of the speech, by giving a complete description of the events leading up to the speech. For example, slavery, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Movement. This will set the background for my analysis and prove that his speech was necessary. In this essay I will also provide a theoretical framework in which I will define and explain the rhetorical concepts that I will be using in my analysis. My analysis will consist of the communication concepts that Martin Luther King Jr. used in his speech to persuade his audience. I will also discuss the message that he was trying to convey. I will then provide an evaluation of how well my analysis allows us look deeper into his speech and see exactly how he persuaded his audience. Finally, I will self-evaluate this essay and the work I have done for this project over the semester.


II. Context

Racism has existed in our society for a long time, and "from the beginning, the Europeans assumed an attitude of racial superiority and tried to paint the Afrikans as savages who needed whites to civilize them” (Burrow 2). Being of African descent has often been viewed as a negative quality by many people in Western culture.. In Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, Burrow states that having “white skin is a symbol of privilege to be respected in this society in ways that black skin never has been” (Burrow 3). Having white skin entails unearned benefits, advantages, and privileges inherited by generations of white people from the time of enslavement. Racism was not accidentally created, but rather purposely created to ensure caucasians were dominant to Africans. People with white skin have often been in control when making important decisions. Even in 1787, the Constitution was created by 55 white men. No Africans or any other race were involved. This indicates that white people had much more power in the world and the other races were seen as inferior.

The Constitution was created to protect all human beings and view all everyone as equals, but King knew that Jefferson really meant that all white men are viewed as equals and blacks are viewed as inhuman. A dispute arose when Southerners and Northerners could not come to an agreement on whether or not to include enslaved Africans in determining the number of representatives each state could send to congress. This would be an advantage to Southern states, since the slaves were held in the South, which led to more representatives compared to the Northern states. The North saw this as a problem and to solve this issue they introduced the three-fifths compromise. The three-fifths compromise was meant to devalue Africans and view them more as property and not as human beings. This created an inequality in the democratic process as black people were only considered as three-fifths of a person in the population count. The Constitution was not created to help Africans whatsoever and “by no means did they intend to grant constitutional rights to blacks” (Burrow 12).

The Dred Scott v. Sanford case of 1857 demonstrates how slaves were entitled to being slaves, even when it seemed possible for them to be free. Dred Scott and his wife were enslaved to an army surgeon named John Emerson. They started out in the enslavement state of Missouri and ended up in Wisconsin, a free territory, when Emerson passed away. The Scotts went to the Supreme Court in order to fight for their freedom but the Supreme Court ruled that they were still slaves. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated that “Afrikans were granted no rights either in the Declaration or the Constitution, and they had no rights that whites were bound to respect them” (Burrow 13). Taney’s statement shows that Africans were still at a disadvantage, even when the odds were in their favor. Author Todd F. McDorman comments that “by debasing their race, eliminating their legal status, and questioning their personhood, the Court eliminated their subject position, in essence erasing African Americans” (McDorman 1997). Although there were decisions made to try and help Africans be accepted in the United States, in the end it was not enough.

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) was created to help Africans transition into freedom. Blacks soon were able to vote, run for, and gain election to office, and have some influence in the political process. Blacks were granted these rights after three civil rights amendments were passed. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865 abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868 guaranteed equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870 eradicated voting restrictions based on color. However, the Reconstruction instigated the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, which was a white supremacist group founded in 1866 by Confederate veterans. The KKK’s goal was to keep black people from voting regardless of the 15th Amendment being passed. In the article Oppressive and Violent: Representations of Southern Men during the Reconstruction Era through the Political Cartoons of Thomas Nast, the author reveals pictures in a newspaper showing how Africans were being mistreated. The picture had a black family protecting themselves with their hands over their heads while a KKK member, on one side, had his hand out over the black family while on the other side, there was a white individual also holding his hand out over the black family. The picture Nast drew showed that the white race was viewed as superior to blacks and they were the ones in control. The black family having their hands over their heads as a sign of fear and protecting themselves. Black people continued to be segregated and mistreated.

The Separate but Equal law was passed in 1890 in Louisiana regarding blacks and whites on public transportation. Separate but Equal demonstrates how blacks continued to be mistreated by separating them from whites. The law stated that blacks and whites were equal but must be segregated, which, in reality, is a contradiction. If black people and white people were supposed to be seen as equal, then there should have been no segregation. Black people had to ride at the back of the bus because of their race and the white people were allowed to sit in the front which was seen as a privilege. Any black person who sat in the front of the bus was breaking the law and was asked to move to the back. If they refused to move, then they were arrested. On December 1, 1995 Rosa Parks was ordered by the bus driver, J.F. Blake to give up her seat in order for a white passenger to sit down. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and therefore was arrested for disobeying the law.



III. Theoretical Framework

The author Bitzer makes a few assumptions on what needs to come into play for rhetorical situation to exist. Bitzer assumes that in order for rhetorical situation to exist a problem needs to exist as well. A problem being confronted by a writer or speaker creates rhetorical discourse. The problem “is the situation which calls the discourse into existence” (Bitzer 1). For instance, King’s speech was a form of rhetorical discourse because he spoke to a large audience regarding the problem of discrimination and racism in the United States. The problem being confronted was racism, which created rhetorical discourse. Bitzer also assumes that rhetorical discourse does not always have an audience to hear or read about the problem. Bitzer mentions how one may have wanted to speak about a situation but kept his or her comment to his or herself, which implies that discourses come into existence whenever there is a problem occurring. Bitzer then assumes that there must be different characteristics in order for rhetorical discourse and rhetorical situation to be present.

The rhetorical situation is a complex of people, events, objects, and relations that can be changed with a rhetorical discourse by persuading people or changing their minds towards the problem. In every rhetorical discourse there is a situation that provoked it. In other words, whenever there is a speech being given, or an article written, there is a problem or an event that led the individual to feel the need to address the problem in the form of a speech or written article. Rhetorical discourse is a persuasive message to persuade the audience to take action against the problem. For example, the civil war was the problem or situation and Abraham Lincoln’s speech was the response, or rhetorical discourse. Lincoln’s goal was to persuade his audience into taking action against slavery and discrimination. The purpose of a message is described by Bizter as “exigency.” King made it clear that inequality was a barrier to holding our nation as a whole from moving forward and was still an issue that needed to be addressed. In the book, “The Racial Contract, by Charles W. Mills, states, “…the general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract (Mills 11). The racial contract states that our nation is ran by whites and other races that are not white are not in power, which King clearly states is the problem he is addressing in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The second factor in rhetorical situation being an effective message is needing an audience. A message needs an audience in order for it to be persuasive. Without an audience there would be no point in the message being created. Messages are meant to be heard and change how people think or act towards a specific event. Messages are made in hopes of persuading people to take actions against a specific problem or event. Every message must have a thesis in order for it to be properly understood by the audience. A thesis helps the audience get an understanding on what the point of the message is. If a message had no thesis, it would have no meaning and this would then make that message useless. Nothing would be done and the message would have been delivered for no reason. Depending on how effective the message is in persuading the audience to taking action can vary depending on how strong the message is, and how persuaded the audience is. A message fails if no action is taken by the audience. Action must occur for a message to have been effective. King was able to relate everyone living in the United States whether white or non-white that inequality effects them one way or another to making his speech use the first concept of rhetorical situation; he was able to target his audience when giving his speech.King was effective in gaining a supportive audience during his speech because he was talking about freedom and equality for everyone just not blacks. King’s speech was effective in persuading such a large crowd in Washington because he did not only focus on one race of being freed but multiple races, “ 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 spirirtual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last” (Garrow 284). By King not only focusing on blacks in gaining their freedom, King was able to get a bigger crowd of support for what he was standing for by not only blacks but other races and religions, everyone wishes for freedom and equality and King was on a mission for everyone to get what was rightfully theirs.

The third factor in rhetorical situation is constraints. Constraints are barriers from a message being persuasive to an audience. For example, if someone is hearing a message that tries to persuade them in ending racism then a racist person would have bias opinions against that message. This bias would limit the persuasiveness of the message and restrain the thoughts of the person into changing their actions and views on racism. Constraints in the audience have the power to pressure the decisions and actions towards the exigency. Constraints include beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, images, interests, motives and other things of that nature. There is also social proof which is when many individuals are persuaded to think a certain way about something. This happens when the ones who feel differently may not speak up because they do not want to be ridiculed by the majority. The fact that there were legal constraints against African-American rights was enough for many people to become accepting of and complacent of the accepted norm. Malcolm X also played a role as being a constraint to King’s speech by having a different approach of solving issues in America. Malcolm X’s protests and speeches were only focusing on black issues of facing barriers of innovation, but did not include other races, religions, genders etc. which only limited his audience in listening or reading his remarks on the issue of inequality. By Malcolm X only addressing African Americans needs he is limiting his audience as Robert E. Terrel had mentioned in her article “Protest, Prophecy, and Prudence in the Rhetoric of Malcom X”, which made it harder for Martin Luther King Jr. to give his speech to make all human beings realize the need for unity from all races, religions, and genders in order inequality to an end.
IV. Analysis

The thesis of Martin Luther King’s speech is also the title, “I Have a Dream.” His dream was to live in a world where race relations would be marked with equality for all, and racism would no longer exist as a barrier. There were many messages in King’s speech. The most prominent message was to end racism and inequality. King also talked about the mistreatment and hatred of black people due to racism. Although racism and inequality was the main point of his speech, King had many underlying messages that he tried to convey to his audience. In his speech he speaks of barriers and states how they still exist even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Segregation was another main theme of King’s speech. There were separate water fountains, bathrooms, and other things for each race, and black people were only allowed to sit on the back of the bus, where white people were allowed in the front.

King’s speech painted a picture for his audience in creating a world where equality exists for all. For example, in his speech he mentioned, “I have a dream...former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together” (King Jr., 1963). With this image we can see how Martin Luther King desired for both races to unite. In addition, King also aspired for the United States government to enforce bills that ensure freedom and equality for all. We can see this when he mentions, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (King Jr., 1963). By referencing the Constitution, King targets all citizens of who abide by its rules. King also asked everyone to unite as a nation and accept each other by stating, “When we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city 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 the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, We are free at last” (King Jr., 6). The idea that King wanted to get across to his audience was unity between all human beings.

King’s message was directed towards all ethnicities however, it was targeted towards African Americans by giving them hope that one day all races would unite. In his speech he said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children” (King Jr., 1963). With this quote we can see his speech was targeted towards all ethnic groups because he dreams of justice for all of God’s children. King believed no one should be discriminated against. King invites his audience to be agents of change by stating in his speech, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (King Jr., 1963). King addresses his audience that as a nation we can change the wrong doings that were occurring and not give up on striving for equality. In his speech we are persuaded to believe that segregation should be illegal, racism should not exist, and that there should be equality between races. We are persuaded to believe that every man is equal, and that there is no freedom with segregation. King also persuades us to take a stand against racism and fight for what is right. Throughout his speech, King uses many different communication concepts to help persuade his audience.

King uses the concept of hegemony. Hegemony is shown through King’s description of our nation being prejudice towards everyone who was not a white citizen. The majority of the time, it is white males who make the laws in the United States. For instance, when the Constitution was created it was made from 55 white males. According to Kristen Hoerl, society plays a role in determining what is seen as a norm and what is not by their actions “functioning as a hegemonic bloc. Civil society plays a fundamental role in shaping what counts as common sense for the culture at large” (Hoerl 3). One can see that if someone fights against what is wrong, then we have a possible chance in changing negative actions that occur in our nation. King’s speech did just that; having America come together and confront the issues that are constantly holding the United States back from progressing.

By looking into the message that Martin Luther King Jr. is trying to get across, there are some exigencies that can be seen. Some of the problems presented are providing equality for African-Americans, fair treatment, and segregation. He wants equality among all races; especially between blacks and whites. The rhetorical discourse is shown through his use of ethos, pathos, and logos, and persuades his audience to take action against the exigencies.



V. Evaluation

My analysis provides a deeper understanding of the “I Have a Dream” speech by pointing out King’s use of rhetoric by involving both blacks and whites in his message. King created an image of unity in describing a world of equality in his speech when he states, “I have a dream that one day 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” (Garrow 283). King, in his statement, has hope that one day the United States will follow what they wrote of everyone being equal and treated the same. Through my analysis it is clear to realize that King’s speech was a use of rhetoric. King using his speech as a form of rhetoric to gain more supporters in his Civil Rights Movement, which proves that his speech was persuasive. According to David J. Garrow, “it had shown that he and the movement’s small band of activists were far from alone, that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to support the civil rights cause”. Not only the ones who attended the event, but also viewers back home who were watching King give his speech, were persuaded in believing his dream of equality can happen. Garrow states that, “...the speech had been the rhetorical achievement of a lifetime, the clarion call that conveyed the moral power of the movement’s cause to millions who had watched the live national network coverage” (Garrow 284). There are also other forms of using rhetoric to persuade an audience, such as protests. In the case of Matthew Shepard, protests were enacted by having parade floats to fight against hate crimes of homosexuals. Using Shepard’s case helps readers of this research be able to apply the rhetorical situation to that situation by figuring out the key concepts: exigency, audience and constraints. The exigency is the hate crimes going on against homosexuals. The audience is those acting against homosexuals through the use of violence and also gaining support from those who do not agree of mistreating homosexuals. The constraints are those who are against homosexuals and have no chance of being persuaded to change their beliefs or, feelings on them. Being able to apply the rhetorical situation helps us to have a better understanding of the theory by seeing it used in both Shepard’s protest and King’s speech. King’s speech was able to relate to not just one individual, but many by stating the goals of the March on Washington, which were: “passage of Kennedy’s civil rights bill, a $2 minimum wage, desegregation of schools, a federal public-works job program, and federal action to bar racial discrimination in employment practices” (Garrow 284). Garrow agreed that King’s audience was persuaded to support his movement by hearing the “crowd roar approval after each demand was read” by King (Garrow 285). The strategic rhetoric of King’s speech and Shepard’s protest were persuasive because inequality affected not only the victims in both cases directly, but also showed that others were affected as well.

VI. Conclusion

Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech has a reputation of being the climax of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is an important historical artifact that still touches the heart and soul of America to this day. It was the start of change, and the beginning of a new era for the United States. King’s speech effectively started the movement to end segregation, discrimination, inequality, and racism. His speech is an important part of history and is still relevant to this day. However, it wasn’t just the speech that resonated with the audience of the American people it was also the man himself. By effectively using communication concepts such as hegemony King reached out to his audience and effectively persuaded them to take a stand against racism. Without his use of rhetoric, his speech may not have been as effective or persuasive. In this essay I have talked about the speech by Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream.” I have successfully outlined my framework in which I would analyze this speech, and furthermore, I have analyzed the speech using rhetorical analysis. I have also evaluated the depth of my analysis. My analysis has shown that with effective use of rhetorical analysis, one can see how to persuade an audience. Martin Luther King’s effective use of rhetoric started something amazing, and changed the United States forever.


VII. Works Cited

Alverez, A. (1988). Martin luther king’s “i have a dream: the speech event as a metaphor. Journal of Black Studies, 18(3), 337-357. Doi: Sage Publications Inc.
Anson, L., and C. Wan. N.p.. Web. 7 Oct 2013. .

CNN. (2013, August 29). March of washington fast facts. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/march-on-washington-fast-facts/


Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." no. 1 (1968): 14.

Burrow, Rufus. Martin Luther King Jr.. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.
De Freitas Colin, C. (2000). Retrieved from http://www.socialistalternative.org/literature/panther

Dunn , Thomas. "Remembering Matthew Shepard; Violence, Identity, and Queer Counterpublic Memories." no. 4 (2010): 611-651.

Garrow , David. Bearing The Cross. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Friedman, J. (2013, August 19). Unprecedented media coverage, got up close personal. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/08/19/march-on-washington-technology/2658425/
Lawson, S. F. (1987). Martin luther king, jr., and the civil rights movement. The Georgia Historical Quarterly , 71(2), 243-260. doi: Georgia Historical Society
M. King. “I have a dream.” Retrieved October 6, 2013 from ARCHIVES on the World Wide Web: http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf



McDorman, Todd. "Challenging Constitutional Authority: African American Responses to Scott v. Sanford." no. 2 (1997): 192-209.

Nast, Thomas. "Oppressive and Violent: Representations of Southern Men during the Reconstruction Era through the Political Cartoons of Thomas Nast." (2011): 36

Shawki, A. (2006, February). Roots of the civil rights movement. Retrieved from http://isreview.org/issues/45/civilrights.shtml


WGBH. (2013). March on washington for jobs and freedom. Retrieved from http://www.wgbh.org/history/march_on_washington_livestream_broadcast_schedule.cfm
U.S Constitution Online. (n.d.). The I have a dream speech. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html

VII. Addendum
The thesis of my paper is that Martin Luther King used rhetorical situation in his speech, “I Have a Dream,” in order to gain supporters for the Civil Rights Movement. Target audience in King’s speech was for all races, not only in United States, but an international audience that racism needs to come to an end. I shaped this paper to my audience by first giving them a brief history on how racism came about during slavery, Proclamation, three-fifths vote, Dred Scott v. Sanford, Reconstruction Era, and Separate but Equal law that was dehumanizing blacks. Giving my audience a bit of background on the issue of racism will make them realize that it has continued for so many years and needed the topic to be addressed, Martin Luther King was the one who did the best to trying to end racism. I showed how theoretical situation theory was used when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”. Martin Luther King’s speech was a skillfully delivered speech because he was able to point out an issue that has been holding minorities and others who were not white from innovating. It was an issue that needed to be addressed before racism/discrimination got any worse than it was. On the day King gave his speech there was about 250,000 people who attended in hearing his speech, which shows he had support from a large audience in protesting against racism and hoping for a better world that does not discriminate a person or persons because of their race. I was able to apply the rhetorical situation theory by identifying the exigence, audience, and constraints in King’s speech.


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