Martin Luther King gave his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, before a crowd of 250,000 supporters and a television radio audience of hundreds of millions worldwide. It is widely considered one of his greatest speeches and indeed one of the greatest of any American in the 20th Century, with a brilliant use of Ethos, Logos and Pathos to support the Civil Rights bill being debated in Congress and to call for full and equal citizenship for all people in the United States. Today the speech is best remembered for the pathos of the conclusion and peroration, particularly his repeated call to ‘let freedom ring’ and prophetic vision for the future of the United States, which were improvised and spontaneous. His logos and rhetorical arguments about how the U.S. finally had to live up to the ideals expressed in its founding documents were also very persuasive, but even so it is the ending of the speech that is still the most quoted. King had also accumulated an almost unique ethos and moral standing as the most important leader of the modern civil rights movement, beginning with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Just a year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and donated the money to various civil rights causes. In his speech, he still adhered to a philosophy of peaceful, nonviolent social change, and all these factors combined gave him an ethos or moral authority that was unmatched in the U.S. at that time, except of course among the many enemies of the civil rights movement.
Ethos: King as the Moral Leader of the United States
In 1963, King’s ethos and moral standing were unparalleled in the U.S. and around the world, at least among those who wished the cause of civil rights well. A Philip Randolph, the veteran civil rights leader, introduced him as the “moral leader of our nation” (King 1963). As a PhD in theology from a prominent middle class family in Atlanta, King certainly did not have to risk his life as the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement. From the start of his work in 1955, he was the main target of the KKK and other hate groups, and they blew up his house during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was often arrested and jailed, and in fact this was part of his strategy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, but at that time there was always great danger for any blacks in Southern prisons. Beyond the local at state police, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had singled him out for electronic surveillance and ordered that he be ‘neutralized’ as a black leader. Conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan, George Wallace and Barry Goldwater were also extremely hostile to the civil rights movement, and frequently appealed to white backlash voters as part of their Southern Strategy in politics. King could have retired from the fray if he wished, and taken up a ministerial post or a university teaching position, particularly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He did not have to continue risking his life by protesting against poverty, racism and the Vietnam War, knowing that he might be assassinated at any time.
Logos: The Founding Creed of American and the Dream of Equality
King’s logos and persuasive style was brilliant, especially when he referred to the highest moral and political ideals and included religious references from the Bible. He warned that there would be “neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights” (King 1963). Even though Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years ago, blacks still faced poverty, segregation, police violence and disenfranchisement, and the country now had to decide whether it really intended to live up to its founding principles. King believed that it would because “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation” (King 1963). Blacks were not simply trying to “blow off steam” and there would be no return to “business as usual” until the Civil Rights Bill was passed (King 1963). He also urged blacks to avoid becoming violent and embittered or to hate all whites, and pointed out that “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” (King 1963). There were both blacks and whites in his audience who had come to Washington from “jail cells” in the South, In addition to civil and voting rights, and like King they had all “storms of persecution and been staggered by the winds of police brutality” (King 1963). King added that the majority of blacks still lived in poverty even though the U.S. was the wealthiest nation in the world. It would not be enough to end segregation and grant voting rights to blacks and other minorities, without also addressing issues like jobs, housing, education and healthcare.
Pathos: Let Freedom Ring
Today, the most famous and frequently quoted passage of “I Have a Dream” is the profound pathos that King expressed in the conclusion and peroration. As with the endings of his other famous speeches, this was not part of his original draft or written notes, but simply came to him as an inspiration while he was speaking and gave King a prophetic quality that no other modern speakers have matched. Early parts of the speech had elements of pathos, such as when he referred to blacks who were still being “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” and living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King 1963). In spite of all the difficulties and oppressions of the moment, he foresaw a time when “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”, and citing the Bible vowed that “we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (King 1963). Then as he moved to his closing remarks he cited a litany of locations in the U.S., including Stone Mountain in Georgia and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, where he demanded “let freedom ring!” At the end, he added an improvised conclusion that has remained the most quoted part of “I Have a Dream”, in which he envisioned a new world in which “all of God's children, 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 spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (King 1963).
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is probably the most famous ever given by an American in the 20th Century, particularly in its outstanding use of all the rhetorical elements of ethos, logos and pathos, and its powerful and inspired conclusion offering a prophetic vision of a transformed world. That new society did not come to pass in King’s lifetime nor has it yet, because for every dream there is a nightmare, and in fact the civil rights movement of the 1960s ended in death, urban riots, assassination and the politics of the conservative Southern Strategy and white backlash. Certainly the enemies of the civil rights movement and King’s Dream have not disappeared, as the recent Supreme Court decision repealing part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act proves. If King were alive today, he would still be leading protests and giving speeches for civil rights and social and economic justice, although probably none would ever equal “I Have a Dream”. It remains an example of the highest and most inspiring form of rhetoric, particularly for its use of pathos, even in an age that has become very cynical about all such speeches and hopeful visions and promises for a better world.
King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream”. (1963).