On August 28th of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a memorable speech in front of the Abraham Lincoln monument memorial that will forever be remembered as one of the best rhetorical speeches in the world. Apart from his rhetorical skills, his pathos, logos, and ethos were extraordinary as well. Bitzer writes about how rhetorical situations must take place or what is necessary for them to be considered a rhetorical situation. Martin Luther King’s speech fulfills each of Bitzer’s three constituents, which are exigence, audience, and constraints. “There are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence; the second and third are elements of the complex, namely the audience to be constrained in decision and action, and the constraints which influence the rhetor and can be brought to bear upon the audience.” (Bitzer 6.)1 In this paper, I will analyze the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech arguing that it is an example of a rhetorical situation according to Bitzer.
As the most prominent Civil Rights leader of all time, Martin Luther King Jr. was an African American that shared the same dreams and aspirations as most, if not all, other African Americans living in the United States. He wanted equality for all blacks, and his drive and determination was not going to let him give up. Unlike other Civil Rights leaders such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King used nonviolence tactics in trying to get his point across. The things he says in his speech are appealing to reason, hope, and intelligence. His pathos is excellent since he is passionate about the issue he is fighting and arguing. King appeals to pathos when he says: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt”, which are hopeful words for society at the time. His ethos makes him a gifted and enthusiastic speaker. When he gives his speech, Martin Luther King speaks in a serious but kind matter, which gives him a sense of authority while also allowing him to reach people’s hearts. King references American documents and architects of our republic such as the founding fathers, which makes his logos an excellent one. This all makes sense because since it is part of the American dream, and who does not want to live the American dream?
One of the points that Bitzer gets across in his piece is that in order for a rhetorical situation to take place, there must be an answer to a problem, or something waiting to be done. Martin Luther King is responding to a problem by giving his speech. In this case, the problem is racism and discrimination against African Americans throughout the United States. This fulfills the first requirement that Bitzer has for a rhetorical situation to take place: exigence. The exigence in Martin Luther King’s speech is rhetorical because “it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (Bitzer 7.) He believed that African Americans should not stay quiet and be unfairly treated, he believed in freedom and equality for all citizens. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech was a form of language that showed a need to call for change as well as responding to the rhetorical situation.
In this instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s audience was fitting because according to Bitzer, a fitting audience “must function as mediators of change and must be capable of being influenced by discourse” (Bitzer 8). Although most of the people that marched with him in 1963 were African Americans seeking racial equality, they were not King’s only audience. Other people that supported equal rights but were not of African American descent were also at this march and stood up for what he believed in. Both of these types of people qualify for Bitzer’s term of a “fitting audience”. People that agreed with Martin Luther King were not the only ones that constituted his fitting audience. White Americans or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (better known as WASPs) were also included. King says in his speech: “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”. These metaphors make white Americans feel pity for the African Americans. Martin Luther King was reaching out to the African American community in the sense that he wanted to give them hope for a better future. At the same time, he was trying to convince white Americans into believing that discriminating against African Americans or any other race was unfair and morally incorrect.
The last constituent of a rhetorical situation according to Bitzer is constraints. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word constraint as “the state of being checked, restricted, or compelled to avoid or perform some action”. Under Bitzer’s theory, “every rhetorical situation contains a set of constraints made up of persons, events, objects, and relations which are parts of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (Bitzer 8). There are two main types of constraints: the ones initiated or commenced by the rhetor and his method, and the ones that may be influential. The first type of constraints is known as “artistic proofs” and the second type is known as “inartistic proofs”, according to Aristotle.
Martin Luther King’s artistic proofs consist of his beliefs: African American’s should be treated equally and racism should end. His ethos, pathos, and logos are also a part of his artistic proofs. The fact that he references the founding fathers and American documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the United States Constitutions makes King an intelligent and intellectual person. Martin Luther King was a pastor, making him a religious leader. This is another constituent of an artistic proof. His peaceful demonstrations are artistic proofs as well. King had many positive artistic proofs, which led him to be successful in achieving what he wanted.
Apart from artistic proofs, King had inartistic proofs, which was the political and social situation at the time. It was not just the beliefs of the ignorant white Americans that he had to face, but actual laws. There were laws that specifically discriminated against African Americans, such as the Jim Crow laws. Martin Luther King not only faced the challenge of changing the opinion of many Americans, but also of changing the law.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech fits Bitzer’s qualifications of a rhetorical situation because it includes all three of the constituents he mentions: exigence, a fitting audience, and a set of constraints. King was such an excellent rhetor that he convinced his audience to become a mediator of change. This is true since he persuaded America to put an end to racism, inequality, and segregation.