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Genre Analysis: Rhetoric and Social Movements


The Civil Rights Movement of the 20th was characterized by the wide use of rhetoric in order to convey the idea of social justice, equality, and the need for change. Rhetoric, being the art of public persuasion, has always been rightfully considered an agent of social change that enables people to participate in public policymaking through encouragement and motivation (Foust and Alvarado). For this reason, social activists of the 20th century, willing to accelerate social change through changing the community’s mindset, actively used such rhetoric phenomena as speeches, letters to the communities, and testimonies.

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Although all of them have the common goal of persuading the addressee of the message, each type of rhetoric operates its three major components differently: logos, ethos, and pathos. According to the researchers, this Aristotelian framework implies that every rhetoric message should include reasonable arguments and evidence, the credibility and trustworthiness of the communicator, and the emotional appeal of the message (Stucki and Sager 374). In the present paper, the two text genres will be compared on the matter of their rhetoric and significance in the social context: the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther, Jr., and Ivan Allen, Jr.’s testimony before the US Commerce Committee. When comparing these two texts, the emotional appeal of Martin Luther’s speech prevails over the testimony, even considering that the latter has more reasonable and evidence-backed arguments.

Rhetorical Analysis

“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther, Jr.

The speech declared by one of the most prominent social rights activists of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a hallmark of the Social Rights Movement and social rebellion against prejudice, discrimination, and racial segregation. The “I Have a Dream” speech took place next to the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963 (“”I Have a Dream” Speech”). Since this message was a part of the March on Washington, the primary purpose of the addresser was to boost the recipients’ morale through a verbal message of hope and empowerment. For this reason, the pathos of this message was of utmost importance to MLK, as the emotional rapport built with the audience could lead to the tangible results of the social rights movement.

Undeniably, the speaker resorted to some evidence and historical facts to emphasize the significance of the speech. For example, the speech itself starts with reference to the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation” (““I Have a Dream” Speech” para. 2). However, instead of operating facts and hard evidence, the speaker makes the conscious choice to use these references in a more implicit way, as the audience listening to the speech had already gathered for the cause of social change, and the historical precursors of the event were known by the recipients.

What mattered the most in the context, however, was the credibility of the speaker and the emotional sentiment of the text. To begin with, Martin Luther Jr. had a powerful image of a social activist and agent of change. As a result, the ethos of the speech presented the opportunity to create a trustworthy message for a mostly African American audience. Moreover, the emotional constituent was focused on the premise of empowerment by a fellow African American activist who shared the struggle of social injustice and racial segregation. For this reason, the choice for a speech as a genre aligned with the rhetoric strategy to resort to the emotive response to the message in the audience.

Ivan Allen, Jr.’s Testimony before the US Commerce Committee

The testimony presented by Ivan Allen, Jr, then-mayor of Atlanta, has been considered as one of the revolutionary cases of political reaction to the issue of racial segregation, as Allen was one of the few political figures actively supporting moral justice and desegregation in the US (Bayor). Unlike the previous rhetoric text, this particular example seeks to fulfill the objective to bring functional change to society through presenting compelling arguments in favor of desegregation. Thus, the primary task, in this case, was to exploit the logos in order to bring to the hearing tangible evidence on the hazards of desegregation. Indeed, in his testimony, the speaker addresses quantitative and qualitative evidence and statistics several times in order to justify his point of view.

For example, during the speech, Allen addresses hard evidence by naming ten steps taken by the Atlanta municipal government in order to eliminate racial segregation. However, the data presented in the argument is essentially used as means of intensifying further evidence on the insignificance of the existing desegregation legislature. In the text, Allen (863) claims that “for example, one of Atlanta’s topmost restaurants served only 16 out of Atlanta’s 200,000 Negro citizens during the first week of freedom from discrimination.” In such a way, the speaker employs both logos and pathos in his speech by presenting data in a way that evokes the recipients’ emotions.

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Moreover, although the text itself was initially designed to meet the rhetoric specifics of the Senate hearing, the speech then also became a subject to nationwide discussion. For this reason, it is reasonable to assume that besides the initial strategy of changing the Senate’s mindset in terms of promoting desegregation and equality, the speaker also tackled the idea of nationwide sentiment. Speaking of ethos, the reputation of the speaker himself contributed significantly to the credibility of the message. Hence, it may be concluded that the rhetoric strategy of convincing the political leaders aligned with the choice of presenting a well-versed evidence-backed testimony to the Senate.

Genre Analysis

When speaking of both speech and testimony, especially once they both address a similar subject, the genres share a series of similar communicative and structural peculiarities. For example, both testimony and speech have a definitive aim embodied in the text. In the case of “I Have a Dream” and Allen’s testimony, the underlying goal was quite similar: the abolition of racial segregation and social inequality. Both bodies of the texts had a definitive structure that included an introduction, thesis statement, and evidence to support the thesis.

However, the exact ways to support the idea differ significantly. In the case of a public speech, MLK addressed the audience that first-hand experienced the struggle of segregation and racial biases. For this reason, the speaker felt free to modify the pattern of conveying the message by emphasizing the shared culture of discrimination and humiliation in order to present the message of hope at the end of the speech, claiming that he had a dream that resonated strongly with the American dream of living in a prejudice-free society that embraced individuality rather than skin color and ethnic affiliation.

On the other hand, the primary objective of the public testimony was to persuade the Senate to take immediate action towards terminating racial segregation across the US. In the context of the testimony, the speaker plays the role of an expert who dwells on the issue by dissecting its roots, implications, and ways of resolution. For this reason, unlike MLK, Allen needed to assume that the recipients of the message were unfamiliar with the gravity of the problem discussed. Hence, the adherence to the genre required the speaker to prepare a serious argument in defense of the thesis statement. For this reason, the communication strategy chosen for each rhetoric differs in terms of presenting the supporting arguments. While the public speech perceives fellow residents as the target audience, its strategy uses pathos as a core strategic element. Conversely, testimony operates logos as a means of convincing the target audience comprised of public officials and policymakers.


Having compared both testimony and public speech as rhetoric tools during the Civil Rights Movement, it can be concluded that both forms of verbal persuasion are of utmost importance to policymaking and the decision-making process in general. However, while having some aspects in common, public speech differs greatly from the testimony due to its heavy reliance on the emotional appeal of the message. In the retrospective, it was the pathos of Martin Luther King’s speech that made this message one of the most memorable in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, even when the message has strong empirical evidence, the pathos of the speech plays a more significant role.

Works Cited

Allen, Ivan. “1963 Testimony to Senate Commerce Committee.” 1963. pp. 861-883. Web.

Foust, Christina R., and Raisa Alvarado. “Rhetoric and social movements,” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Oxford University Press, 2018.

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“Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech in its Entirety.” NPR. 2022. Web.

Stucki, Iris, and Fritz Sager. “Aristotelian Framing: Logos, Ethos, Pathos and the Use of Evidence in Policy Frames.” Policy Sciences, vol. 51, no. 3, 2018, pp. 373-385.

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