In 1863, Abraham Lincoln oversaw the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although all black slaves were freed by this proclamation, unfortunately, the oppression towards African Americans was far from over. It wasn’t until the mid 1900’s that African Americans took a stand against this ongoing segregation and racism. Amongst all the civil rights leaders that arose during this time, MLK was arguably the most influential figure. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), thousands of African Americans, as well as many of other individuals, marched to Washington D.
C. to witness the speech that many people today regard as one of the greatest speeches in history. MLK goes in depth outlining the problems with racism as he simultaneously invokes feeling of sympathy in the audience.
Furthermore, through his use of various other rhetorical devices, he generates strong feelings of unity amongst audience members to bring them together as one equal group of people under God. In persuasion, emotional appeal is one of the most powerful devices a speaker can use.
If a speaker can effectively force audience members to sympathize with him, they will essentially be on his side of the argument. MLK does a phenomenal job of this in his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation….One hundred years later, the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition”.
The “great American” MLK was alluding to was Abraham Lincoln; who, as I stated earlier, was the main driver behind the Emancipation Proclamation. The syntax of this quote really emphasizes the oppression that African Americans are exposed to. Words like exile, languishing, and shameful were chosen to evoke sympathy in the audience for the victimized African Americans. Now that he effectively gained sympathy from the audience, he has their attention. His next move is to drill into their heads that the need for change is imminent. The heavy use of anaphoras in MLK’s speech was his best weapon in regards to making his ideas stick in the heads of audience members.
As seen in the portion of the speech, “Now is the time to…make real the promise of democracy….rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation…lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice…make justice a reality to all of God’s children”, his repetition of “now is the time to…” stirs up the audience and makes them realize that there is need for immediate actions to be taken to fight this oppression. It was no coincidence that MLK decided to refer to us as “all of God’s children”.
Although the people in the crowd may have differed in skin color, the majority of people were apart of some sort of religion. By putting everyone in the same category (i.e. being children of god) he furthered his point that all men are created equal. When MLK came to speak at Washington D.C., he didn’t come to propose a compromise, he came to preach that African Americans will not settle for anything less than equality.
Again, MLK used anaphoras to emphasize and reiterate how relentless “we” (the African American population) will be in the civil rights movement when he said “We can never be satisfied as long as…our bodies cannot gain lodging in the motels….the colored persons basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one…our children are stripped of their selfhood…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. Along with the repetition of “we can never be satisfied”, he uses a simile for “justice” and “righteousness” to relay the power of the freedom he dreams to achieve for the African American people.
Again, through the use of anaphoras, MLK describes this dream he hopes to achieve. In this portion of the speech, he shows the audience a glimpse of the harmonious future that will come with his dream of equality amongst all people. He repeats the phrase “I have a dream” eight times. His voice progressively got louder and more dramatic as he repeated the phrase. Each time, becoming more powerful than the last. The result of this was a sharp increase in excitement and emotional arousal in the audience. His inclusion of equality and brotherhood in “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal….we will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’ were used to invoke feelings of unity in the audience.
Unity amongst the American people was not only the dream of MLK, but, along with freedom, was the basis on which America was founded upon. MLK’s repetition of the phrase “let freedom ring” served to show the audience that, although America was founded on freedom, it hasn’t yet been truly achieved. When true freedom is achieved, he said “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…’Free at last, free at last.
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”. He successively appeals to the diversity of the audience by referring to the every major social group and recognizing them all as equal. ”. The usage of the diacope “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last” brings his speech full circle. It presented the end result of the dream he proposed, and successfully expressed the feeling of relief African Americans will have when they get their freedom.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, MLK went in depth identifying the problems with racism as he simultaneously invoked feeling of sympathy in the audience. His use of various other rhetorical devices generated strong feelings of unity amongst audience members to bring them together as one equal group of people.
Although his rhetorical devices were the main reason behind the success of the speech, the way he structured of the speech is what pushed it above and beyond greatness, and made it ones of the greatest speeches in history. MLK was without a doubt, the most influential leader in the civil rights movement. Without his influence, segregation may have still existed even today. However, thanks to his phenomenal rhetorical speaking, his “I Have a Dream” speech gave the civil rights movement the immense push it needed to end segregation for good.
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