The Rhetoric of Pathos in the Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"I have a dream," says Dr. Samuel Proctor, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University. "All the little children--you hear everywhere you go: 'I have a dream.' All the little children repeating that speech. It's become like the 'Star Spangled Banner' or the 'Pledge of Allegiance.' It's entered our culture." And so it has: "I have a dream" has become one of the most memorable phrases of the twentieth century. Of all the many speeches delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on that hot, steamy day of August 28, 1963, no other remarks have had such an impact as those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His words reflected then, and continue to do so now, the deep sense of pathos in the plight of African-Americans throughout the United States, a socio-economic and political context rooted in injustices orchestrated by unfair, discriminatory practices that were designed to intimidate and dominate the nation's African-Americans behind a veneer of social and political platitudes accepted as givens by others in the same society. Those easy assumptions Dr. King challenged in his reflections on the African-American's experience to that time.
What set apart his remarks from all the others that day, however, were elements of style--an oratorical style--that Dr. King had honed in speech after speech for years. He was, in fact, a much practiced orator. A comparison of almost any set of his remarks reveals the key to the dramatic sense of pathos that still accent his works for readers today.
The distinguishing features of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s style which so personalize his works are his rich allusions, figures of speech, and parallelism. These three rhetorical elements dominate his writings, and a study of their use in Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," sometimes titled "Why We Can't Wait," and "I Have a Dream"--delivered in the same 1963 season of discontent and nationwide protest--help us better understand the focus of the Civil Rights agenda of the period.
When white ministers protested the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's decision to pursue "non-violent" but "direct action" in Birmingham in April 1963, Dr. King, in his written response, drew widely upon Biblical, theological, and historical references in the development of his defense. Always believing that the fundamental justification for "direct action" was to be found in Christian scripture, Dr. King cites both Old Testament and New Testament references supporting his claim that "there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience" ("Letter," 294). He notes, "It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust...