Martin Luther King astounded America with his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech. His demand for racial justice and a unified society became mantra for the black community and is as known to successive American generations as the US Declaration of Independence. In his speech, King stresses upon equality and presents his dream of an ideal non-racist community.
The speech is divided into two halves. The first half shows the picture of seeing American nightmare of racial injustice rather than an idealized American dream. It then makes a demand for action and set some goals to achieve. The second half of the speech describes the dream of a better future – racial integrity and equilibrium.
King has a very sophisticated voice in the speech. He makes his speech effective by using several large and descriptive words rather than short and direct words. All around the speech, King uses various metaphors such as “America has given the Negro a bad check.” The speech is directed towards King’s fellow Americans.
All over the speech, King make use of the words, “our” and “we” when he refers to others. This shows that he is not speaking specifically to the white or black Americans, but to the country as a whole. This is supported by, “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers â€¦ their destiny is tied to ours,” and in the line “we cannot talk alone.”
To increase the rhetorical effect in his speech, King uses a rhetorical device, “anaphora” in which words are repeated at the beginning of neighboring clauses. A pattern is set by repeating the words twice, and further repetitions signify the sequence and increase rhetorical effect. For instance, “I have a dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences.
Moreover, King has made the clever use of repetition of key theme words throughout the body of his speech. For example king has used key words like “freedom,” “we,” “our,” “nation,” “America” “justice” and “dream,” to highlight important themes he has tried to discuss in his speech.
In addition to above, King has made extensive use of allusions in order to make his speech more credible. He starts his speech with “five score years ago â€¦” which refers to Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech which began similarly, “Four score and seven years ago â€¦” This allusion is particularly emotional given that King was speaking at the front of Lincoln’s Memorial. His fourth paragraph, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness â€¦” is a reference to US Declaration of Independence. To provide moral basis of his arguments, King uses numerous Biblical allusions. The allusion in the second paragraph, “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity,” refers to Pslams, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” [30:5] Further in the eighth paragraph, the allusion “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of hatred and bitterness â€¦” alludes Jermiah “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” [2:13]
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King provides numerous geographic references like “Mississippi,” “Georgia,” “Albama,” “California,” etc. throughout his speech. Mississippi is mentioned on four different occasions; King has a logic and purpose behind this. He wants to evoke some of the strongest emotions and images for his audience relating to various incidents that would have taken place at the above mentioned places. Additionally, King uses generic geographic references like, “slums and ghettos of our northern cities,” “the south,” “from every mountainside,” and “from every village and every hamlet,” thus making his message more inclusive.
To associate his speech concepts with concrete images and emotions, King has used Metaphors. For example, to contrast separation with racial justice, King uses the contrasting metaphors of dark and desolate valley (of separation) and sunlit path (of racial justice). He used metaphors in paragraph two, “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity,” at paragraph three, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” at paragraph six, “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” at paragraph seven, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality,” and at paragraph nineteen, “sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
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Despite all the rhetorical devices King has used, what makes his speech strong is his focus on the problems he confronted. For instance, at the start of second of the speech, in answer to the question from his cynics, “When will you be satisfied?” King launches a rhetorical pattern, “We can never be satisfied until…” followed by list of injustices that King wished to see abolished, including, barbarism, separation, and neglect of voter rights. He left no stone unturned in listing critical problems that African-American faced.
Secondly, the power of his speech lies in the captivating vision of “justice, equality, and brotherhood,” that King cast in his speech. Here the rhetorical waves start with the popular, “I have a dream…”, followed by ‘gripping articulations of King’s vision of racial impartiality and justice’: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”
Thirdly, the strength of King’s words lie in the non-violent methods he purposed. Although King and his followers faced serious injustice, and there was a great difference between reality and vision King advocated, he remained unshaken in his commitment to non-violence. For example, in the seventh paragraph, King said, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.Â Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force”.Â
Carefully choosing the language and structure of his speech, King left little room for weaknesses. Although King focused his speech primarily for the rights of black Americans, the message is all logical. He talks about nothing controversial in his speech neither does he degrade white Americans. He speaks for the best interests of everyone. This is why his speech is still considered so important by the Americans.
Part of an extensive black movement, King challenged the white Americans to extend their claims of genuine freedom to his people. Moreover, King used all his means to inspire black Americans to believe in “genuine freedom” for themselves. The primary message from the speech was equality. America now bears the slogan of the message he gave decades back and black Americans are better than ever in the American society.
(Word Count approx. 1200)
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