The Rhetoric of Pathos in the Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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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 th...

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...uinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust (293).

In the name of eternal and natural law, Dr. King joined in the long train of reformers, dating in the American and Western tradition to Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience, to the Continental Congress's "Declaration of Independence," and John Locke's apostrophe to democracy, his "Essay on Civil Government." Dr. King's words still urge us all to sharpen our sensitivity to universal law that makes each of us "free at last."

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. "I Have a Dream." A Testament of Hope. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986. 217-220.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." A Testament of Hope. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986. 289-302.

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