Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream” delivered in Washington in 1963 has gone down in history as one of the world’s most famous speeches.
To understand its true meaning, you need to immerse yourself in the history of the United States, in those distant events that preceded such an important historical event as the march on Washington.
It is important to feel the origins and causes of the “I Have a Dream” speech. And, of course, to understand the meaning of the speech, you need to understand the speaker: what kind of person he is, what his views are, and what kind of education he has.
Therefore, before starting a detailed rhetorical analysis of the speech, let’s first study a brief biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
Table of Contents
- Brief Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
- The March on Washington in 1963: Most Famous Speech in American History “I Have a Dream”
- Structure of Martin Luther King’s Speech “I Have a Dream”
- Rhetorical Analysis of the Speech “I Have a Dream”
- Rhetorical Figures of Speech in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”
- Analysis of Martin Luther King’s Jr. Speech “I Have a Dream”: Final Thoughts
Brief Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. is an American activist and public figure, leader of the civil rights movement for African Americans in the United States. His social activity began with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, a peaceful protest against discriminatory measures in the public transportation system.
Martin Luther King Jr. fought for racial and economic equality and justice while being a supporter of exclusively nonviolent resistance. He helped organize mass movements such as the Selma to Montgomery March and the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, in the family of a pastor. Even then, in school years, his oratorical talent began to emerge: Martin was a member of the school debating club, participated and won competitions in oratory.
King was a very able student, and at the age of 15, he enrolled in Morehouse College. At age 19, after graduating from college with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, Martin Luther King continued to study theology and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester. In 1951 he graduated from the seminary with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. Then Martin Luther King Jr. studied at Boston University and in 1955 received a Ph.D. degree.
During his studies, King was a pastor in Boston religious meetings and often met with other ministers of the church to discuss contemporary social problems and write sermons.
Undoubtedly, Martin Luther King had an innate talent for oratory, but without constant work on himself, without training and developing his abilities, there would not have been that King, whom the whole world knows.
King repeatedly emphasized the importance of getting an education. He took courses in theology every semester for 3 years at the Crozer Theological Seminary.
By 1963, thanks to the organization of non-violent protests against restrictions on blacks’ rights, Martin Luther King became a national hero.
In 1964, for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, leaving a legacy of progress in civil rights in the United States.
The March on Washington in 1963: Most Famous Speech in American History “I Have a Dream”
“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.”
This is how Martin Luther King Jr. opens up his famous “I have a dream” speech.
About 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where Martin Luther King delivered his speech on August 28, 1963.
100 years after the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, officially Proclamation 95, which changed the legal status of enslaved African Americans to free, black people continued to face discrimination, infringement, and humiliation. This problem was especially acute in the south of the country.
Of course, on that day, August 28, the marchers – more than 250 thousand people, of which 80% were blacks, were waiting, even more, eager to hear just such a speech and listened to King’s every word.
Structure of Martin Luther King’s Speech “I Have a Dream”
The structure of Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream” is quite simple. The whole text can be divided into 2 parts:
- In the first part of the speech, we have a picture of the American nightmare, full of injustice and humiliation of human dignity. This piece is about the past and the present (August 28, 1963). In addition, in the first part of his speech, King calls people to action:
“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only.
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
- The second part of the speech is King’s vision of a bright future for the United States, his dream, his hope and faith in equality and justice for all people, regardless of skin color:
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Martin Luther King Jr. used a variety of rhetorical devices, figures of speech, and literary tropes in his speech. Further in the article, we will consider each technique in detail.
Rhetorical Analysis of the Speech “I Have a Dream”
Tropes are used to enhance the imagery and expressiveness of speech.
Martin Luther King used two types of tropes: allusion and metaphor.
An allusion is a kind of hint, analogy, or reference to a well-known historical event, it can also be a catchphrase or quote.
For the first time, the allusion in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech appears immediately after the opening sentence: a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which was preceded by US President Abraham Lincoln’s decree to abolish slavery.
Symbolic, isn’t it? Exactly 100 years ago, an important historical event took place under the leadership of Lincoln, at whose memorial Martin Luther King spoke in 1963:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
This passage is also the starting point, it is the beginning of the narrative, indicating the date and place of the event.
References to the Bible and Shakespeare were especially popular among English-speaking orators, which is exactly what Martin Luther King did when writing the text of his speech.
“This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
This is a very skillful allusion to William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”, which Martin Luther King Jr. so subtly used in his speech. Here are the lines from the play:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
King in his speech often refers to the Bible, which, of course, is natural and not surprising, because he was a believer and pastor:
- “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”
The allusion to Psalm 30:5: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a life time. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
- “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Amos 5:24: “But let justice(A) roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
- “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
The allusion to Isaiah 40:4-5:
“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
- “And when this happens, . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual.”
The allusion to Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In addition to allusion, Martin Luther King actively used metaphor in his speech “I Have a Dream”.
Metaphor is a hidden comparison, the use of words in a figurative sense based on similarity and analogy with the characteristics of some object or phenomenon (a waterfall of stars, a wall of fire, a pearl of art, a bear of a problem).
Metaphor gives imagery to speech, helps to keep the listener’s attention, and influences their imagination.
- “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
- “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
- “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
- “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
- “… justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
- “… by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
- oasis of freedom and justice.
- beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
- With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Rhetorical Figures of Speech in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a unique masterpiece of oratory. To create it, King used several rhetorical (stylistic) figures:
1.Parallelism is the identical or the same construction of various words or sentences of the text:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
2. Anaphora is the repetition of the same initial words or sound combinations.
Martin Luther King uses this rhetorical figure of speech repeatedly. We can say that anaphora is practically the basis of King’s speech.
8 sentences of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech begin with the famous phrase:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.“
More examples of anaphora in the speech “I Have a Dream”:
- One hundred years later.
- We refuse to believe.
- We have come.
- Now is the time.
- We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
- We can never be satisfied.
- Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.
- With this faith we will be able to…
- Let freedom ring…
3. Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonants in several words:
- I have a dream that one day down…”
- “…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners.
4. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds:
- “… on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
- “… we shall always march ahead.”
- “… the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”
5. Lexical repetition is a rhetorical figure that consists of the deliberate repetition of the same word or speech construction in a visible section of the text.
- “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.”
- “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
- “Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
- “… have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
- ” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
- ” No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down…”
- “This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning.”
- “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet…”
- “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
6. Antithesis is the opposition of words, concepts, and images that are interconnected by common features (contrast):
- “black men as well as white men.”
- ” Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
- “… from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…”
- “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.”
- “… in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.”
- “physical force with soul force.”
- “… a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”
- “… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
- “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
7. Polysyndeton is the repeated use of the coordinating conjunctions:
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics…”
“… and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
8. A rhetorical question is a question-statement that does not require a direct answer:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?”
Analysis of Martin Luther King’s Jr. Speech “I Have a Dream”: Final Thoughts
This historical event has sunk into oblivion, but the idea is relevant even today: it is impossible to win by responding to violence with violence.
Martin Luther King’s urgent appeals for unity and non-violent action in response to oppression and cruelty are worthy of respect and remembered.
Martin Luther King’s speeches became key moments in American history in the fight for racial justice. And his unique speech “I Have a Dream” is a real rhetorical masterpiece, by studying which you can learn a lot.
If you want to read the full version of the “I Have a Dream” speech, follow the link “Martin Luther King JR’s Speech “I Have a Dream” – Full Text”.
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