13 The Culture of Ethos

Ja’Corey Johns

Keywords: Authority, Audience, Expertise, Trustworthiness


I am analyzing the correlation between ethos and Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches. The two speeches I chose are “I’ve been to the mountaintop” and “ I have a dream.” These speeches were delivered by one of the most influential speakers of the civil rights movement making Martin Luther King Jr. probably one of the most credible people alongside other great spokesmen. Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent activist and spokesperson for the civil rights movement. After Dr. King graduated with his doctorate, he became a pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. These groups held boycotts and nonviolent demonstrations. During King’s leadership, African Americans made genuine progress toward racial equality as they followed King’s footsteps through nonviolence, protests, and civil disobedience. The purpose of  King’s speech “I’ve been to the mountaintop” is to promote peaceful protests of the inequalities blacks face, particularly the Memphis Sanitation strikes, by urging unity and religious guidance for nonviolent challenges to racist social constructs.


King’s message in this speech is that the people participating in the civil rights movement cannot lose hope and forget the true purpose of their fight. He also conveys the message, that whether or not he is still alive, their peaceful fight must continue, and that they cannot allow anyone to stop them from achieving what is rightfully theirs, their “Promised Land.” He states “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land” (Mountaintop). King uses an emotionally charged tone that resembles a religious sermon. This allows him to connect with his audience on a spiritual level, which makes them believe they are fulfilling God’s purpose for them by protesting injustice. “God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and the children who can’t eat three square meals a day” (Mountaintop). King uses hopeful and positive diction in his speech. He is able to capture the audience’s attention by making them hopeful for a better future, one free of racial prejudice.


Another speech from Martin Luther King Jr. is “I Have A Dream.” African Americans are still fighting for equal status. King used his powerful rhetoric to show his people a new direction and persuade them to stand united. King was a great advocate of Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of nonviolence and wished that whites and blacks could live together in peace. King imagined a brighter future for the people of color and an environment in which white people could share space with African Americans and create a stronger nation and society free from discrimination. King’s rhetoric was powerful, and millions found inspiration and hope in his words.


King started his speech with the lines, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation” (I have a dream). King’s initial words are a call for unity and to take a united stand against discrimination.  He sets the background and foundation of his speech and his vision of the future that includes freedom, non-discrimination, and long-lasting happiness. In his speech, King frequently looks back at moments in American history and refers to the leaders who laid the foundation of free America. This adds ethical appeal to his speech. However, King’s speech is also rich in imagery, and his phrases frequently paint the picture of a nation where peace and prosperity abound. King dreamt of a united society that would not easily fall prey to discrimination or stay divided along the lines of color. King’s biggest revulsion is that the promises made during Lincoln’s time never became a reality, and instead, African Americans have been being fed only fake promises. His reference to the Emancipation Proclamation and its promises also adds ethical appeal to the speech.


The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Martin Luther King warned the protesters not to engage in violence lest the issue of injustice be ignored because of the focus on the violence. King argued that peaceful demonstrations were the best course of action, the only way to guarantee that their demands would be heard and answered. Regarding the civil rights movement, King demanded that the United States defend for all its citizens what is promised in the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and stated that he would never give up until these natural rights were protected.

Works Cited


Eidenmuller, Michael E. “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” American Rhetoric: Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’ve Been to the Mountaintop (April 3, 1968), 2008, www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.

“’I Have a Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety (August 28, 1963).” NPR, NPR, 18 Jan. 2010, www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Ja’Corey Johns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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