The Rhetorical Persuasiveness of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
It is a safe assumption to state that almost everyone has heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. It is also safe to assume that almost everyone has been moved, or persuaded, by it. James Melvin Washington calls the speech “the most well-known and most quoted address Dr. King delivered” (Washington 36). It is generally granted that the speech and the man have surpassed legendary status, and it could be asserted that both the man and his words will be immortal. Yet, it is not obvious to most people that Dr. King was a master of rhetorical persuasion. Dr. King went to Morehouse College in Atlanta and graduated with a B.A. in Sociology. He also graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity. He earned the status of a Doctor of Philosophy at Boston University. Thus, it is valuable to approach the speech in question as an act of rhetoric meant to persuade the receivers to believe in the content therein and to change the receivers’ attitudes, habits, and behaviors. Furthermore, as an educated man with an honorable and necessary purpose driving him, it is once again safe to assume that Dr. King was aiming at the highest objective of communication: to better the general state of human-kind. His target was to change society and culture which would in turn change the world. Obviously, the speech was, and still is, effective in the fact that to this day it affects people, although the higher objective mentioned above has
not been reached by the whole of society as of yet. Therefore, a student of Rhetorical Persuasion, in pursuit of knowledge and in the hope of furthering man-kind as a whole towards a greater destiny, must study the words of this great man.
These points of introduction lead to the question at hand. Why was Dr. King’s speech so effective? Why does it cause tears in its listener’s eyes. Why does it move people to this very day? Why, as Washington points out, is it “the most well-known and most quoted address Dr. King delivered”? The man, obviously, was one of the greatest minds of history, and therefore some of the reasons of why his words have so much power to persuade may be part and particle of the great mystery that so often surrounds the great ones. There are six fundamental tools of Rhetorical Persuasion, though, which a beginning student can pinpoint within the speech. Dr. King utilized the ancient Greek idea of Kairos, repetition of key ideas, simple metaphor, nature imagery, consideration of audience, and a certain style of verbal delivery to mold his speech. He uses all six of these foundational rhetorical tools in a masterful way, and that mastery is evident in the response of the receivers. Every single time a person experiences the speech, he or she cannot help but be moved or elevated mentally, physically, and spiritually.
A foundational tool of rhetoric and one of Dr. King’s useful persuasive tools within the address is the ancient idea of Kairos. Within this concept is the idea that a successful persuasive speaker will know and make use of the appropriate moment in time. The “I Have a Dream” speech was obviously making use of Kairos. The Civil Rights movement was a natural, collective human reaction to a situation that was intolerable and unnatural. Thus, it could be argued that Kairos occurs naturally in the
human condition without planning. A topic in need of persuasive speech will draw its speaker to say the right things at the right time without premeditation. In this case, King could very well have been aware of Kairos, but it is also possible that the greatness within him was just reacting to a great need in a moment in time. Needless to say, timing played a great role in the effectiveness of this speech, and Kairos should always be considered in any message.
Repetition is an important fundamental to consider within the art of persuasion. An important idea, one that the speaker wishes the receiver to remember, hold on to, or concentrate on, needs to be repeated so that it sticks to the memory. Dr. King uses repetition in his speech in a way worthy of close analysis. There are, in fact, nine different repetitions within the speech. These repetitions are meant to beat in each point as a hammer does a nail. The first repetition is “one hundred years later” (King 217). It is repeated four times. This drives in the fact that a century after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the black people of America still are not truly free. The second repetition is “now is the time” (King 218). He repeats this phrase four times. This drives home the urgency of immediate action. The third repetition is “we must” (King 218). It is repeated four times to drive home King’s philosophy of non-violence first, and second, to drive home an ideal of communal action. The fourth repetition varies in verb-tense and mood. It starts out alternating between “we can never be satisfied” and “we cannot be satisfied” (King 218). It then changes to “we are not satisfied,” and ends with “we will not be satisfied” (King 218-219). The variation repeats seven times. It creates a strong sense of coming to terms with the past and present, and implies that the
current situation is not to be tolerated in the future. The fifth repetition is “go back” (King 219). It is repeated six times. This is Dr. King’s direction to the activists. It is a
call for more action and beats in the idea that the work is not yet done. The sixth repetition is “I have a dream” (King 219). It is repeated six times and is introduced with the words, “So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream” (King 219). The word “so” implies that the speech is turning here. Here is the main point, the thesis, and the true persuasion. The dream is of simple equality. The seventh repetition is “with this faith” (King 219). It is repeated three times, and since it follows “I have a dream,” it represents the faith in King’s dream and what that dream will accomplish when realized. It also represents faith in his audience, the receivers of the message. Above all else, it demonstrates his religious faith. The eighth repetition is “let freedom ring” (King 220). It is repeated eight times and is connected with the mountains of eight different states. This literally drives the point home. This repetition connects the message with the listeners’ homes and demonstrates that the struggle is in every state. The ninth and last repetition is “free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last” (King 220). The crowd erupts into applause at this point, and the speech is over. When a person recalls this speech on a random future occasion, undoubtedly that person’s memory will recover one or more of these repetitions. This future act of remembering will demonstrate the power of the fundamental rhetorical tool of repetition.
The use of metaphor in communication is fuel for the argument. It powers the car of persuasion so it can go. One of the reasons that Dr. King’s speech is powerful is
because is uses a metaphor that is vivid and easily understood. Aristotle tells us that using a metaphor is “making the lifeless living” (222). He further states that “metaphors should be transferred from things that are related but not obviously so, as in philosophy,
too, it is characteristic of a well-directed mind to observe the likeness even in things very different” (223). In regard to the metaphor’s effect on the receiver, Aristotle says, “it becomes clearer … that he learned something different from what he believed, and his mind seems to say, ‘How true, and I was wrong’” (223). Dr. King’s metaphor is that of the “promissory note.” Within his metaphor, the issue of his argument can be found. Right after he speaks of Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” he constructs his metaphor for the audience:
In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note … America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. (King 217)
This metaphor is remarkable is several ways. In the recording of the speech, it is obvious that the crowd thinks the metaphor is remarkable as well. The vehicle is the idea of the basic rights of any American as a check of sorts. This check has bounced at the bank when the black people tried to cash it. Therefore, the tenor is the fact that black people are not being granted the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This metaphor simplifies King’s message in a way that every person can understand, to this day. Bouncing a check or receiving a check that bounces is commonplace and is a bad experience for both sides. It is an embarrassing situation for both sides, as well, and it is a universal given that a person who writes a bad check on purpose is a bad person. The metaphor, a simple and effective foundation of communication, helps an average person to understand the basic idea of the message, the struggle in this case, in a logical way.
Connecting with the average person is fundamental to purposeful communication. For understanding to occur between a speaker and a listener, there must be shared fields of experience. Dr. King creates this connection between his message and the listener through his use of nature imagery. It is the nature imagery within the speech that makes the language so strong and effective. Nature imagery is powerful because all men and women can relate to nature. It is a field of experience, relating to the world, common to all people. People, biologically speaking, are pretty much the same. They have the same senses which send messages to brains that are all similar. Thus, people have similar responses to the things that they see and hear, particularly nature. For example, a beautiful sunrise or sunset with magnificent shades of blue, orange, red, and clouds afloat in such a way as to send rays of sunlight towards the earth, generally speaking, will be as
inspiring to a man in Georgia as it is to a woman in California, simply speaking. In that sense, Dr. King uses many different nature images to illustrate contrast within his message. In the first paragraph of the speech, he relates the lives of African-American slaves to being “seared in flames” (King 217). In contrast, “the Emancipation Proclamation … end[ed] the long night of their captivity” (King 217). He goes on to describe the modern black as living “on a lonely island of poverty” (King 217). In contrast, the rest of America lives “in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King 217). In a call to action, he says, “now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (King 218). He promises that if action is not taken, if change is not eminent, then “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation” (King 218). He continues the idea of revolt by promising that “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (King 219). He describes the experiences of the activists as like being “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” (King 219). He reminds his listeners not to “wallow in the valley of despair” (King 219). He contrasts “the heat of injustice … [and the] heat of oppression” to the “oasis of freedom and justice” (King 219). He speaks of valleys, hills, “rough places,” “crooked places,” and most especially of mountains (King 219). He writes that “with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” (King 219). This comprehensive list of nature imagery within the speech demonstrates this rhetorical tool’s effectiveness to persuade. Simply put, if
the listener has experienced nature, then the speaker can use the tool of attaching nature images to ideas, thereby making them real in the mind’s eye, in order to more fully persuade or move the listener. In a more complex way, the images of nature evoke, within the listener’s sub-conscience, human-kind’s entire history on this planet and the constant struggle to dominate, to understand, or to accept the natural order of things.
When Dr. King was considering which nature images to use, he may have been thinking of which images would strike at the hearts of his audience. One of the most important things to consider, when approaching any rhetorical situation, is the audience. Who are the people receiving the message? Where are they from? What do they do? What do they care about? How might they react to the topic? On August 28, 1963, Dr. King’s actual audience included many black men and women who marched with him to the Lincoln Memorial. It also included many white men and women as proven by both camera footage chronicling the speech itself and by King’s own words within the speech: “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (King 218). In addition, there were “television cameras [that] allowed the entire nation to hear and see him plead for justice and freedom” (Washington 36). This was not, by any means, a small audience. It was, arguably, one of the most important audiences in the world, the free-thinking people of the United States of America. It is logical speculation that Dr. King was loved by many, confusing to many, feared by many, and hated by many. This speculation leads to the possibility that Dr. King’s will and courage were greater and stronger than a warrior’s
because he was able to face this monumental act of public speaking head on, without flinching, stuttering, or faltering. Therefore, familiarity with the intended audience is of the utmost importance.
In the end, the greatest idea ever would sink if not for delivery. Poor delivery will undoubtedly turn an audience away whether the idea is perfect or not. In the speech, Dr.
King demonstrates his mastery of delivery. What exactly does delivery mean, and why is it important? Aristotle describes the importance of delivery, in particular concerning the quality of the speaker’s voice. He writes,
It is a matter of how the voice should be used in expressing each emotion, sometimes loud and sometimes soft or intermediate, and how the pitch accents [tonoi] should be entoned, whether acute, grave, or circumflex, and what rhythms should be expressed in each case; for [those who study delivery] consider three things, and these are volume, change of pitch [harmonia], and rhythm. Those [performers who give careful attention to these] are generally the ones who win poetic contests; and just as actors are more important than poets now in the poetic contests, so it is in political contests because of the sad state of governments. (195)
Aristotle recognized the importance of delivery just as Dr. King did. If one watches and listens to the speech, then one gets a since of amplification. It starts off slow and low. It is rhythmic and monotone in nature for about the first fourth of the whole. Around the mention of the “promissory note,” Dr. King’s tone begins to fluctuate more often. From here it begins to build up. It goes back down, as well, but it is obviously alternating.
Around the start of the “I have a dream” repetition, it is obviously building up more and more until it peaks at the last repetition of “free at last” where he also raises his hand. Dr. King probably learned a style of oration within the Theological Seminary, but many use this style to a lesser effect. Dr. King was a master of delivery as Aristotle understood it, and it is the delivery which concretes the speech into the category of Greatest.
There it is, right there, for the student of Rhetoric to see, to hear, to understand, and to emulate. There is obviously more at work within Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech than just these fundamental elements. Yet, these six elements clearly play a significant role in the power of the speech. Dr. King’s conclusion is that through diligent adherence to and belief in his dream, racial equality can exist.
Great humans have shaped the world and framed reality for smaller men and women. There is so much in a great person that a lesser person might never grasp, but a student of Rhetoric still has much to gain in the study of Dr. King’s works, words, and life. Analysis of this speech in particular serves to further celebrate the man, his power, and his words. It serves to help others not to forget him and to remind everybody that his work is incomplete, in America and the world. It is also noteworthy to the student that an understanding of the foundational tools of rhetoric carefully applied can create immortality in writing and can help to shape culture, society, and reality.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans and Ed. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential
Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Ed. James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1986.
Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream.” The Black History Collection. MPI Media
Group, 2005. DVD.
Washington, James Melvin, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and
Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.. By Martin Luther King, Jr.. San Francisco: Harper, 1986.