Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the foreground with other people standing attentively in the background

"I Have a Dream" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King applies Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion to the case for the civil rights movement and makes use of figurative language and repetition in order to convey his message that there cannot be true peace or freedom in the United States until Black Americans are granted the same rights, privileges, and opportunities as White Americans. 

Dr. King employs ethos when he argues that one hundred years after the abolition of slavery, “the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” In linking segregation to slavery, he appeals to the American code of ethics: if slavery was declared wrong and outlawed “five score years ago,” why is segregation still allowed? King likens the unfulfilled promise for freedom to a “bad check,” and it is only right that African Americans be granted what is owed to them. Thus, King asserts that Americans have an ethical obligation to end segregation. 

In describing the trials African Americans endure through segregation and discrimination, King employs pathos: they fall victim to “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality”; they are turned away from hotels though “heavy with the fatigue of travel”; they can only move from one “smaller ghetto to a larger one”; and their children “are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity” by segregationist signs. Supporters of the civil rights movement have experienced or witnessed these horrors and many others, and King draws upon their distress to motivate them to fight against segregation. 

King utilizes logos when he states that his African American audience members must not blame and shun all White people, for there are White civil rights activists in the audience with them. Additionally, he quotes the Declaration of Independence’s famous statement—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—in order to convey that segregation is not only wrong but also illogical in light of the United States’s founding documents and values. 

King describes the effects of these unfulfilled promises, warning that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.” Additionally, African Americans have “been seared in the flames of withering injustice” through segregation. In these metaphors, King glorifies the civil rights movement and encourages his audience to strive for the peaceful future that awaits them on the other side of the struggle against segregation. 

Finally, King repeats several phrases throughout his speech in order to dramatize the horrors of segregation and the hope he has for America. Near the beginning, King repeats “One hundred years later,” emphasizing the injustice and absurdity of the fact that African Americans are continually denied the rights promised to all American citizens. He begins several sentences with “Now is the time,” conveying the sense of urgency that he is attempting to instill in his audience. The refrain that gave this speech its title is, of course, “I have a dream,” which King declares nine times in describing his vision of the United States without segregation. In the end, King urges the United States to “Let freedom ring” from famous and beloved American mountains and establish equal rights for all citizens in all parts of the country.

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