Rhetoric in martin Luther king Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
Martin Luther king was a clergyman, activist and a leader of the African-American civil rights in the American continent. King was a great national icon in the Americans history but however, there are few Americans today who are still not familiar with martin’s philosophical speeches like his famous speech, “I have a dream.” Which he delivered in Washington on March. At the time he gave this speech, America was in the middle of a civil rights movement that would end segregation and other injustices. King was well recognized for his use of stylistic devices to deliver and enhance his speeches which helped audience gain better understanding of his speeches. In this essay, it is discussed how not only the timelessness of king’s speech that makes it so effective: king’s use of rhetorical expertise persuasively uses comparison and contrast, repetition and metaphor; to rally the nation to his forceful but peaceful course with words that are passed from one generation to another.
King’s use of comparison and contrast is by the way he introduces his subject concerning the state of civil rights in the United States. As he speaks the words “five years ago, an American in whose symbolic influence we live by today, signed the emancipation proclaims,” He aligns himself with the cause of popular president Abraham Lincoln who gave the Gettysburg address (King, W, 16). He uses word choice contrasting the level of racial inequality in the past and in what he expects in the future; reflected in his words, “I have a dream”. He uses words like exile, poverty, captivity to negatively describe African-American lives in the past. This is a reflection of the very poor living conditions and lack of freedom among the African-Americans in the past. However, he uses words such as freedom, hope, justice and faith. This shows that he hopes for a positive change in the future. He hopes that the African-Americans will once unite free from racial discrimination and oppression. Hence the use of comparison and contrasts as a rhetoric device provides a strong foundation on which king bases the rest of his speech.
Repetition is also evident in king’s speech and it contributes a great deal to the effectiveness of the particular idea he wants to bring across by emphasizing it. He for example repeats the statement “one hundred years later” to emphasize that the African-American lives have experienced no change even a hundred years after signing of the emancipation to give freedom to the slaves, by Lincoln. By this he wanted to put across the point that even after a hundred years of hope for a positive change, the Negro has not yet attained his freedom and lives in the midst of poverty. He repeats the words “now is the time” aimed at showing the urgency of the change in racial inequality in the country. By this he meant it’s time for all people to receive equal opportunities and treatment and advocated for an immediate change. By repeating the words “I have a dream,” he does not only stress on the negative situations, but also hopes for a better future with poverty eradication and freedom.
King’s speech is also filled with metaphor, which provides the audience with vivid and emotionally forcefully images to help them understand the severity and serious nature of the civil rights situation he describes. For example, when king speaks of “the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” he is not speaking about literal manacles or actual chains. However, manacle chains are instruments of imprisonment and even if the audience does not already agree with king’s cause, most can make the association that slavery was eventually a prison. An exceptionably powerful metaphor that king uses is by likening the current situation of civil rights to one of economics, a much less contentious subject. King says “we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” from which it is expected the currency of “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can be received. However, king states that America has declined to accept this check from people of color. It becomes something that every American can relate to, not just people who are oppressed or are of a particular race. He talks of “signing the promissory note”. According to this, he refers to a promise given to all American citizens as stated by the constitution. King also talks of “bad check” referring to an unfulfilled promise to the Americans. This promise is yet to be fulfilled to the African Americans. He uses the metaphor “desert state”. By this, he refers to the state of Mississippi to show that it is the most affected by racial discrimination. However, he also refers to Mississippi as “the oasis of freedom and justice” meaning that there is hope in the future of end of racial injustice in this state. He uses others like “table of brotherhood” referring to the ultimate unity between the African-American and the Native Americans in the near future. “Crooked places will be made straight”. By this he meant that eventually, there will be equality in the whole of the American region.
King’s speech and its emotional appeals are meant to encourage both black and white Americans to rally to the support for the civil rights movement. He does not want to instill an “us against them” mentality but instead, wants to develop unity and brotherhood in his audience. He says that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This implicated that he truly felt it in his heart about the ongoing racial inequality and hoped for a better treatment for the future generation. “One day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers” (Martin, L.). Here, he hoped that a time will come when there will be unity in America so that the rising generation could not experience the segregation and racial discrimination. According to scholar (Keith, D.), king utilizes proverbs in his speech delivery to enhance understanding to the audience. Kings recognition that all people are valuable for equal civil rights and his use of inclusive language and ideas allows his audience to feel that they are important and have not been alienated from his cause.
King’s use of rhetoric language devices; comparison and contrast, repetition and metaphors altogether make king’s “I have a dream” speech one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. These rhetorical tools along with his powerful message make the peaceful civil rights of martin Luther king Jr, one that is familiar to almost every American since 1963 when he first spoke those words. The speech has actually fulfilled its objective and has brought positive influence among the Americans leading to a decrease in the level of racism; for example the election of an African-American president is a proof of racial equality in the country. King’s rhetoric is highly successful, a terrific example for any aspiring public speaker and will not soon be forgotten.
King Jr, Martin Luther. “Full Text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream.’ speech”
Miami Herald, 24th Aug. 2013, Web
Miller, Keith, D. “on Martin Luther King Jr and the landscape of civil rights Rhetoric.”
Rhetoric & Public Affairs (8), spring 2013 167-183 print
Washington, Durthy, A. “I have a Dream’: A Rhetorical Analysis” The Black Scholar 23.2
Winter/Spring 1993. 16-19. print