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Example 1

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Example 1: “I Have a Dream” Speech

A lot of what was covered above may still seem abstract and complicated. To illustrate how diverse kinds of texts have their own rhetorical situations, consider the following examples.

First, consider Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Because this speech is famous, it should be very easy to identify the basic elements of its particular rhetorical situation.


The text in question is a 17-minute speech written and delivered by Dr. King. The basic medium of the text was an oral speech that was broadcast by both loudspeakers at the event and over radio and television. Dr. King drew on years of training as a minister and public speaker to deliver the speech. He also drew on his extensive education and the tumultuous history of racial prejudices and civil rights in the US. Audiences at the time either heard his speech in person or over radio or television broadcasts. Part of the speech near the end was improvised around the repeated phrase “I have a dream.”


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most iconic leader of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He was an African-American Baptist minister and prominent civil rights activist who campaigned to end segregation and racial discrimination. He gained inspiration from Howard Thurman and Mahatma Gandhi, and he drew extensively from a deep, rich cultural tradition of African-American Christian spiritualism.


The audiences for “I Have a Dream” are extraordinarily varied. In one sense, the audience consisted of the 200,000 or so people who listened to Dr. King in person. But Dr. King also overtly appealed to lawmakers and citizens everywhere in America at the time of his speech. There were also millions of people who heard his speech over radio and television at the time. And many more millions people since 1963 have heard recordings of the speech in video, audio, or digital form.


Dr. King’s immediate purposes appear to have been to convince Americans across the country to embrace racial equality and to further strengthen the resolve of those already involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Audiences’ purposes are not as easily summarized. Some at the time may have sought to be inspired by Dr. King. Opponents to racial equality who heard his speech may have listened for the purpose of seeking to find ways to further argue against racial equality. Audiences since then may have used the speech to educate or to advocate for other social justice issues.


The initial setting for the speech was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963. The immediate community and conversation for the speech was the ongoing Civil Rights Movement that had gained particular momentum with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Dr. King helped direct. But the enduring nature of Dr. King’s speech has broadened the setting to include many countries and many people who have since read or listened to his speech. Certainly, people listening to his speech for the first time today in America are experiencing a different mix of cultural attitudes toward race than as present in America in 1963.

Other Analysis

Dr. King’s speech is an example of a rhetorical situation that is much bigger than its initial text and audience. Not many rhetorical situations are as far reaching in scope as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The following example of a research paper may be more identifiable to students reading this resource.