The famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the historic March in Washington in August 1963 effectively urged the US government to take actions and to finally set up equality between the black and white people in America. Although there were many factors that contributed to the success of the speech, it was primarily King’s masterly use of different rhetorical instruments that encouraged Kennedy and his team to take further steps towards racial equality.
King effectively utilizes numerous linguistic devices, such as metaphors, anaphoras, allusions, and provides an abundance of specific examples in his address and this all makes the speech more convincing and memorable. But before we look at these rhetorical devices employed in the speech in more detail, a brief summary of the discourse may be helpful. It can be divided into two parts. In the first part King depicts the racial injustice in America and calls for action using several themed paragraphs (e. g. Now is the time to…” and “We can never (cannot) be satisfied…”). The second half conveys King’s hope for a better future where there will be equality between the citizens of America regardless to the color of their skin. This part contains the thesis of the speech: “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. ”“ The address finishes with an emotionally rich and competently improvised paragraph themed around freedom.
As you read the text, you come up with hundreds of metaphors. Found almost in every line, they adorn the speech and make it more effective. Most of those metaphors are used to highlight the contrast between two abstract concepts. For example, King invokes the contrast between quick sands and solid rock to distinguish racial injustice from brotherhood: “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. However, there is also a metaphor in the address used to illustrate a whole process rather than to contrast two concepts. King uses phrases like “cash a check”, “promissory note”, “insufficient funds”, “bank of justice”, etc. to develop this metaphor throughout two paragraphs. “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds. ” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. ” Anaphoras1 are also vastly used by King in his speech. The speech has as much as eight anaphoras. The most famous of them is the “I have a dream” phrase that is repeated in the beginning of eight consecutive sentences. Anaphoras help King to impact his audience more and more with each successive repetition of the theme words.
Besides his skillful usage of metaphors and anaphoras, King also makes a good use of another figure of speech called allusion (an indirect or passing reference) in his address. He evokes numerous important cultural texts, which makes his speech more persuasive. Here are some allusion examples from his speech: “Five score years ago…” refers to the famous Gettysburg Address speech by Lincoln that started with “For score and seven years ago…” (Lincoln’s beginning in turn evokes the Bible. This was especially touching, as King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. ”, “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their 1 the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, Definition derived from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, © Oxford University Press, 2004 captivity. ”, “And when this happens . . . e 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:” are all Biblical allusions. There is also an allusion to Shakespeare in the speech. When King says “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. ”, he evokes the Richard III of the famous poet: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York; The other strength of the speech is characterized by the use of many specific examples. King makes many references to distinctive geographical locations along his discourse: South Carolina, Louisiana (paragraph 14), Alabama (paragraphs 14, 22), New Hampshire (paragraph 32), New York (paragraphs 13, 33), Pennsylvania (paragraph 34), Colorado (paragraph 35), California (paragraph 36), Georgia (paragraphs 14, 18, 37), Tennessee (paragraph 38), Mississippi (paragraphs 13, 14, 19, 39).
You might notice that the state of Mississippi is referred to more frequently than the other states. And this is not coincidental; as at that time Mississippi was relatively more associated with racial injustice, mentioning this state would bring the strongest emotions in King’s audience. All of these geographical references exemplify King’s points and make the speech more sweeping and extensive.
The linguistic devices skillfully implemented by King, his remarkable emotions and brave improvisation at the end of the discourse transformed his speech into a rhetorical masterpiece. However, what I most like in “I Have a Dream” is its maneuverability. The address clearly hints at revolution, but at the same time King uses peaceful words like brotherhood, freedom, etc. , and thus provides an option that everyone could buy into, an option that everyone did buy into and that changed the world for the better.