I have a dream” (Martin Luther King, Jr Every great speech is situated within a specific time and place, and responds to some problem or other. Inthe case of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech the occasion was delivered on 28th August, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and it was the focal point of a mass demonstration in favor of civil rights for African Americans in the United States (Levy, 1992, p. 122). The immediate rhetorical exigence is therefore a need to capture the essence of this event, putting into memorable words the reason why all those people have gathered, summing up all that they stand for and the specific political agenda that they have. There is, behind this immediate crisis point, also a much larger background of oppression of African Americans, first of all as slaves and then later in the continued suppression of their rights through segregation and unfair laws and practices across the United States.
The rhetorical audience for this speech is the assembled crowd of demonstrators, who listened to the speech as it was delivered in the open air. The argument endorses their beliefs and rallies them to commit to further peaceful action in support of emancipation of all oppressed people. The speaker is conscious also of a much wider audience, both at the time of the speech itself, and in future generations, since his opening lines frames the speech also as part of “what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation” (King, 1963). The speech was recorded using microphones and early tape recording technology and the speaker is aware of the power of this medium. The target audience is therefore both immediate and removed from the speaker, and he addresses both at the same time.
The context of the speech is this monumental unfairness to non-white people , and Dr King argues that the time has come to remove it and fulfil the original promises made in the American Constitution. Vail argues that rhetoric was a crucial aspect of this speech because it sharpened the focus on these issues, with the result that Dr King was able to redefine the problem something that is urgent and vitally important, (Vail, 2006, p. 78) rather than something that can be left for politicians to argue about and aim for in the distant future. Frady notes that there were major concerns on the part of the police, government authorities and even Church leaders about the potential for violence and disorder in such a large gathering, (Frady, 2002, p. 122) and so Dr. King’s speech has to tread a fine line between rallying supporters, provoking complacent listeners to sit up and pay attention, and at the same time maintain a calm and peaceful gathering.
Two tactics are used to make sure that the attitudes and values of the speaker, including the commitment to peaceful means of protest: first an emphasis on “my four little children” and his dreams for them as a father, and secondly the use of biblical language, quotations from the Bible and a preacherly intonation to stress the moral justice of his cause. This calls Christians of all colors and political persuasions to join with his cause and eliminate injustice.
Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I have a dream.” Speech delivered on 28th August 1963 in Washington D.C. Available online at: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Levy, P.B (ed.) (1992). Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Westport, CT : Praeger.
Vail, M. (2006). The “integrative” Rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9 (1) 51-78.