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Analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Rhetoric

Martin Luther King Jr. was adept at expressing himself and persuasive in his arguments. His "I Have a Dream" speech is probably his most famous, but his earlier argument in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is also well-known. The two artifacts differ in their audience, their intent, and the way they shape their arguments, though both are carefully designed to appeal to their respective audiences and to persuade members of that audience to a point of view.

The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a written communication while the "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered as a speech to a huge audience. The letter is much longer in keeping with the fact that it is to be read, and its argument is also more complex because the reader has more time to digest it, to re-read it if necessary, and to consider the different concepts being offered. At the same time, the letter has elements reflecting the sort of things considered important in verbal rhetoric, from the opening salutation to "My Fellow Clergymen" to other references to the readers intended to bind them to the writer of the letter by common interests and positions. In "I Have a Dream," King continually links himself with his listeners and with the occasion by the use of "we" as a subject.

The occasion for each communication dictates the form and manner selected by Dr. King. In the opening lines of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King notes first that he is presently in the Birmingham city jail, that he is writing to fellow clergymen who have criticized his actions leading to his jail term, and that he intends to answer those particular criticisms because "I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth" (King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" 114). King here speaks directly to the clergymen-critics addressed in the salutation of the letter, and throughout he makes use of "you" to draw those readers into the argument and to assure them ...

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