“I Have a Dream” is the most famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also considered as the best and greatest speech that was proclaimed in the history of the United States. It gathered more than 200,000 Americans of all races at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
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The speech is an excellent example of persuasive rhetoric filled with many expressive means and stylistic devices, such as metaphors, repetitions, allusions, epithets and persuasive constructions. The speech has become a symbol of a new era of freedom and symbol of the American civil rights movement.
“I Have a Dream” is a representation of the “America Dream” about a free and equal society. As Leff & Kauffeld (1989) mention, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech won immediate and sustained praise and has become a moral compass in American political culture” (p. 181).
The speech had a great influence on minds and visions of all Americans and “forever “legitimized” civil rights in the minds of most Amricans” (Leff & Kauffeld 1989, p. 181).
Marin Luther King was among the founders of the American civil rights movement. He led an active political life. He attended the Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University.
In 1955, he became a president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and gained a public recognition for his activities in the campaign. He also is one of the organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. In 1963, the members of the conference led mass demonstrations in Alabama. These demonstrations resulted in the passage in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
During one of the march demonstrations for Jobs and Freedom, King pronounced his famous speech. (Durgut 2008). The main purpose of the speech is expressed in its name “I Have a Dream”. The dream of the author was to live in a free society and make all people equal regardless race and social position.
Passionately and powerfully, he claimed that reformation of the society is a task of the future. His words became a meaningful expression of the political and cultural situation in the country and “shaped” the idea for which every American should struggle.
Thus, his speech was aimed at inspiring Americans to take actions and improve their lives. The key message of the speech is “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” (King 1963, n. p.). In order to come to this subject, the author divides the speech into three parts: introduction, first part (American reality) and second part (the prospects of the future).
First of all, he outlines the problem, “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” (King 1963, n. p.), then he provides the detailed description of the racial injustice and inequality that face Americans.
He also inspired the listeners to rebel against these injustices claiming that “Now is the time” for changes, “now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” (King 1963, n. p.). Thus, he prepared people for the second part of his speech in which he presented the results of the changes.
King also expresses the dissatisfactions with the policies and laws which discriminated African Americans and their rights. The intended audience was the government representatives.
However, the author was intended to “touch minds” of all people, both black and white from all social layers. Emotionally and with anticipation, he addresses the people of America and, especially Negro people to whom he belongs:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred (King 1963, n. p.).
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He says “we” in order to show his concern and participation. When emphasizing the word “we” he demonstrates that everybody who understands the problem and seeks changes is involved and the “problem” is not a concern of the particular individuals, but it is a common problem and everybody should make his/her contribution to solve it.
The purpose of the author is to inform and inspire people for struggle and prepare them for changes. He builds his speech so that it was meaningful not only for political activists and Negro people, but to everybody. He says:
…the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny (King 1963, n. p.).
Thus, we can see that the speech is addressed to white people as well. Moreover, King says that “all people are brothers” and there is no racial distinction. Next important trait of the speech is that it was written at the time when the question of racial discrimination was urgent.
Black people faced inequality and violence. “King is known as a charismatic orator. His way of persuading people was to use the power of words instead of physical violence” (Durgut 2008, n. p.).
He knew exactly how to use words, and after he delivered the speech “I Have a Dream”, he gained a great appreciation from people and was called “The Man of the Year” by The Times magazine.
Moreover, a year later, he was awarded by the Nobel Peace Prize for his great contribution to the establishment of justice and peace in the world. These facts demonstrate how people assumed about the author and his activities.
During the time when the speech was proclaimed, television transferred the recent events of the raising struggle for civil rights. There were the episodes of the violence in Birmingham and Alabama. The March on Washington became the first step towards equality and justice.
Regardless the fact that by the time when the speech was proclaimed Abraham Lincoln put an end to slavery and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, discrimination and inequality still had a great power and did not decrease at local and even national levels.
This reality inspired King that something should be done in order to “open people’s eyes” and spread the ideas of equality and justice. In his speech, the author makes allusions to the documents that also addressed the same ideas as his speech.
He refers to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights; the author also cites the words from the Declaration of Independence, and addresses the Bible in order to show that God created all people equal and it was the responsibility of every person to preserve that equality. King met a great response from the audience.
The text of the speech was heard by a broad audience due to television and this allowed the author to reach “the hearts” of many people around America.
These days, the text of the speech is widely available for all who wants to read it. It can be found on the Internet at the American Rhetoric and other sites, as well as in many anthologies and books. The audio and video versions of the speech are also available on the Internet.
The main idea the all people should be treated equal is heard in every line of the text. In order to make the speech emotional and persuasive, King made use many stylistic devices, as well as paid a great attention to the content.
“I have a Dream” is a political speech with the elements of a sermon. According to the Aristotelian classification, it is a deliberative speech. The distinctive feature of this type of speech is the purpose of it. It aims at enabling the audience to make a judgment or a decision during the speech.
There are three main parts of the speech: exordium, narration and argumentation and peroratio (introduction, main part and closing) (Black 2008). In every part of the speech, King presents particular information. With regard to the content, structure of the text has a great importance in representation of this content.
Every type of speech should begin with the exordium, “the functions of the exordium are to make the audience attentive, docile and benevolent” (Durgut 2008, n. p.).
Traditionally, the content of the introduction of the speech should present the salutation of the audience, the main idea and some general additional information to attract the listeners’ attention. Martin Luther King managed to include all the points into one sentence, “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” (King 1963, n. p.).
Furthermore, the narration presents arguments, evidences and prospects for the future. The main part of Luther’s speech can also be divided into two parts. The first part of the main text provides the audience with the historical background of the “problem”.
The author describes social and political events that had place “Five score years ago” and the results that people could see “one hundred years later” (3 times) (King 1963, n. p.). In the next paragraphs, he calls people for action telling “now is the time” which he uses four times, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark… Now is the time to lift our nation… Now is the time to make justice a reality…” (King 1963, n. p.). The author also set goals for people who are ready to protect their rights and freedoms, “and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back” (King 1963, n. p.).
He claims that people “can never be satisfied” as long as they have to be the victims of unjust policies and racial prejudice. In order to supper his argument, the author uses convincing evidences which he observed in the society.
He also makes allusions to historical documents, such as The Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In addition, he refers to the Bible as to a foundation of the “human law and justice”. The second part of the text is the author’s expectations.
He looks into the future with the words “I Have a Dream”, it is the main theme of the paragraph, as well as the speech as a whole. He begins this part with an emotional introduction, “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream.
It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream” (King 1963, n. p.). He addresses a strong message for Caucasian people about peace and equality, and he expresses his hope that the positive changes will come in the nearest future, “King gave advice how to act and what to change currently, so his vision of the common future for the American society might come true one day” (Durgut 2008, n. p.).
He claims, “let freedom ring from” all over the United States and people will live happy. This idea is voiced in the peroration of the speech, and it provides strong and persuasive ending of the text.
As it has already been mentioned, King was a skillful orator and his speech is an example of high quality rhetoric. His speech presents all types of appeals, such as ethos, pathos and logos. “Pathos refers to how well you can appeal to someone’s emotion” (Black 2008, p. 48).
Dr. Martin Luther King’s persuasive “I Have a Dream” speech was fueled by emotional components. He said that “African Americans were living on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” (Black 2008 p. 48).
He persuaded to give the black Americans the equal rights, in the passage of his speech he says that “all men – yes, black men as well as Caucasians men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (King 1963, n. p.).
He uses logos when referring to historical documents and the Bible. Providing that all people are equal and friend, Martin Luther King uses ethos.
Language and style of the speech are bright, expressive and persuasive. He makes use various methods to convince the audience. Thus, he widely uses repetitions of key phrases and “theme words”, make allusions to significant historical events and important documents, provides specific examples to make his arguments significant and use broad metaphors to emphasize important moments and highlight the most important concepts and ideas.
So, the most important phrases that serve to attract the audience’s attention, such as “Now is the time…”, “We can never (cannot) be satisfied…”, “I Have a Dream…”, “Let freedom ring (from) …” are repeated in the successful sentences, or at the beginning of the sentences.
The theme words are repeated extensively through the text, they are “freedom” (20 times), “dream” (11), “we” (30), “our” (17), “justice” (8). Among the most “impressive” metaphors used by King are:
“Joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity”;
“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity”;
“Rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice”. (King 1963, n. p.).
Thus, we can come to a conclusion that the speech “I Have a Dream” is the most impressive political speeches that had a great influence on the history of the United States, and shaped visions of many Americans.
It is one of the best examples of the rhetorical art and persuasive writing. Thus, as Kenneth Tamarkin & Jeri W. Bayer (2002) say, “Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an eloquent appeal for integration and equality” (p. 399), and the representation of the American dream.
Black, Barry C. (2008). From the hood to the hill: A story of overcoming. New York: Thomas Nelson Inc.
Durgut, Ismail. (2008). “I Have a Dream”: an example of classical rhetoric in a post-modern speech. London: GRIN Verlag.
King, Martin Luther. (1963). I Have a Dream. American Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Leff, Michael C., & Kauffeld, Fred J. (1989). Texts in context: critical dialogues on significant episodes in American political rhetoric. Davis: Routledge.
Tamarkin, Kenneth, & Bayer, Jeri W. (2002). McGraw-Hill’s GED Social Studies. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.