Analysis of I Have a Dream Speech

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech that electrified a nation. In Washington D. C, King delivered his speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and as his powerful voice echoed out across an audience of 200,000 people, echoes of the Gettysburg address could be heard as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. It has been called “masterfully delivered and improvised sermon, bursting with biblical language and imagery. ”The passionate speech is filled with rhetorical devices that help ground into earth King’s demands of racial equality and outcries of social injustice.
The second paragraph of the speech starts with “Five score years ago”, an allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. This is particularly poignant due to the fact that the speech was given on the steps of his memorial. A memorial to the president who passed the emancipation proclamation. Martin Luther King Jr. continues with comparing this (the emancipation proclamation) “momentous decree” to a “great beacon light” to those who had “been seared in the flames of withering injustice” in an example of a simile and then a metaphor.
The metaphor is expanded to call the proclamation “a joyous daybreak” to a “long night. ” The metaphors help prove King’s point through contrasting two abstract concepts through tangible things. The last sentence of the second paragraph is the first of many references to the bible. In comparing Psalms 30:5 “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” to King’s line “ It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity” the parallels can be seen.

The use of biblical references helps link the work of MLK to the bible and divine things. Southerners being in the “bible belt” and dominantly Christian, this reference to the bible strikes home to these slaveholders. The third paragraph contains a strong example of anaphora with the repetition of “one hundred years later” four times. This is used to thrust home the point of how long the suffrage has gone on. The duration is important but also the effect of its repetition makes the paragraph seem longer and drawn out- like the injustices that are still being suffered- one hundred years later.
Also a simile is used to compare segregation to imprisonment in the the phrases “manacles of segregation” and “chains of discrimination. ” The usage of these rhetorical devices relates slavery to jail and further contrast it from the biblical allusions used with equality. Paragraph four of the speech is a large metaphor for an allusion to the United States Declaration of Independence which is later cited directly. In Specific King alludes to the declaration in saying “unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ” Which within itself is a tricolon ascends.
This allusion to such an important American document is used to support King’s theme of equality by pointing out its resonance in the purely American document. Throughout this portion of the speech King makes a metaphor of these guaranteed rights saying they are a “promissory note”. This metaphor links these intangible unalienable rights to something tangible which falls into place with the rest of the expanded metaphor. He goes on the say that the Negro people have received “a bad check” and when they tried to cash this check is comes back marked ““insufficient funds. ” These metaphors feed into the larger one of a citizens rights to a promise of a bank. Martin Luther King Jr. shows his hope the country in the continuance of the metaphor in which he refuses to believe “the bank of justice” is bankrupt and that there are insufficient funds in the “great vaults of opportunity”. Furthermore he makes a metaphor of freedom to riches and security to justice. The use of all these smaller metaphors feed into the larger one and these rhetorical devices are used to link intangible to tangible.
Also this shows the realist side of the speaker, not only does he allude and reference biblical things but also he realizes the importance of equality to blacks economically. The fourth “paragraph” of the speech ends with an example of anaphora. A short hopeful phrase of “now is the time” is repeated four times back to back to back to back in the last four lines of the paragraph. These rhetorical devices have a powerful impact and add a decisive, hopeful feel. Martin Luther King Jr. in this conclusion also makes another metaphor with saying racial injustice is “quick sands” and brotherhood is a “solid rock. These metaphors also link the intangible with the tangible creating a contrast. Apples and bananas are different but the difference of good and bad is harder to see. When attached to real life objects the visualization is made. The rest of the speech contains several more independent metaphors, all used to support Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s points. “The whirlwinds of revolt will shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges”; making a metaphor of revolt to a whirlwind and justice to a bright day.
Yet again, metaphors are used to represent abstract ideas with concrete things to create a contrast. In another place it is seen that storm are like persecution and winds like police brutality. Tying in the earlier metaphor to imprisonment, this usage of a rhetorical device shows the vicious circle Negroes were living with. At some point it becomes repetitious all of the metaphors of justice to everything from money to the bible. But yet again injustice is metaphored to “sweltering… eat” (alluding to Richard III act one, scene one, line one) and justice to an “oasis” yet another instance in which the metaphors are used to show contrast. Later on the entire country is metaphored to as in “jangling discords” and that with brotherhood it can be transformed into a “beautiful symphony. ” This metaphor is a nice break for all of those to justice but still the same ideas ring through. This usage of a rhetorical device ties to the topic at hand to a larger more national scale. Some of the most famous parts of this speech are due to the usage of anaphora.
In several instances, besides those already listed, Martin Luther King Jr. uses this rhetorical device to sink his point deep into the hearts and minds of those who have heard it. He uses the phrase “We can never be satisfied” six times in paragraph thirteen. This powerfully blunt statement repeated over and over again is riveting and unifying. Then in paragraph fourteen King uses “go back to” six times to create a larger size to his efforts. After building up the crowd this use of anaphora disperses hope of a better tomorrow to all. No matter where, to everyone. Then in the onsecutive paragraph comes to most famous line of a speech possibly ever: “I have a dream. ”
He transitions from we, as a part of the crowd, to I, separating himself as a leader; sharing his dream. While these words may be the most famous, the speech ends with another example of anaphora that are the most important words of the speech. They are “Let freedom ring. ” After alluding to “My country ’tis of thee” and its chorus line “let freedom ring” he expands to say let freedom ring in Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Georgia, Tennessee and “from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. This all encompassing freedom is Martin Luther King’s dream and this beautiful anaphora heightens the grandeur of the allusion. The depth of Martin Luther King Jr. and his speech is seen in his many allusions. Thirteen ends with an allusion to Amos 5:24 with “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” which echoes in King’s line “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
Another biblical allusion is in 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. Which echoes Isaiah 40:4-5 “Every valley shall be exalted, and very mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. Both “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” and Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. ” All of these biblical references connect the “dream’ of king to the biblical writings.
There are two additional non-biblical examples seen in his referencing to “My country Tis of Thee” and “Free at last” works of American music. . Martin Luther King Jr. also makes multiple allusions to the Declaration of Independence (some emitted as previously cited before). Including the direct quote of “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. “Another very closely related allusion is seen where he says “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”.
In both instances, King is saying that his dream is no different than that of our founding fathers. What alluding the the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution does is show the legitimacy of his dream: it is directly seen in both documents. While it may not be exact anaphora the repetition of words such as freedom (used twenty times) and justice (eight) must be seen as notable. What they do as anaphora (a rhetorical device) is support the key themes of the whole speech- freedom and justice.
If there is any impression to be taken from the speech it is the ideas of equality, justice and freedom for ALL. From the allusions to the metaphors and similes, the “I Have a Dream” speech is littered with rhetorical devices but what exactly is rhetoric? Rhetoric is is the art of enchanting the soul (Plato) and the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion (Aristotle). It is the use of rhetoric that sets this speech a part, makes it so famous and adds to its success in the spreading of one man’s dream to change his world for the better.

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