Analysis of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech
The “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King is recognised as one of the best speeches ever given. Here Stevie Edwards looks at what makes it so memorable.
There is also YouTube clip of the Martin Luther King Speech
More than 40 years ago, in August 1963, Martin Luther King electrified America with his momentous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, dramatically delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
His soaring rhetoric demanding racial justice and an integrated society became a mantra for the black community and is as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the US Declaration of Independence. His words proved to be a touchstone for understanding the social and political upheaval of the time and gave the nation a vocabulary to express what was happening.
The key message in the speech is that all people are created equal and, although not the case in America at the time, King felt it must be the case for the future. He argued passionately and powerfully.
So what were his compositional strategies and techniques?
Certainly King’s speech was well researched. In preparation he studied the Bible, The Gettysburg Address and the US Declaration of Independence and he alludes to all three in his address.
Stylistically the speech has been described as a political treatise, a work of poetry, and a masterfully delivered and improvised sermon, bursting with biblical language and imagery. As well as rhythm and frequent repetition, alliteration is a hallmark device, used to bang home key points.
The format is simple – always an aid to memorability! It falls into two parts.
The first half portrays not an idealised American dream but a picture of a seething American nightmare of racial injustice. It calls for action in a series of themed paragraphs. “Now is the time” is the first:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
Likewise the theme “we can never be satisfied” sets some goals:
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “when will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The second half of the speech paints the dream of a better, fairer future of racial harmony and integration.
The most famous paragraph carries the theme “I have a dream” and the phrase is repeated constantly to hammer home King’s inspirational concepts:
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.
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.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, and rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
While the address has a very strong message for white people and hints at revolution, King’s words are mostly about peace, offering a vision everyone could buy into. At the end of the speech he brings in a unifying passage themed around freedom:
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must come true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.
But not only that — let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, 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,
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Three factors added to the impact of the speech:
• The remarkable emotion of King’s delivery in terms of both voice and body
• The site at which it was delivered – on the steps of the memorial to the President who defeated southern states over the issue of slavery
• The mood of the day, a sense of perpetuated slavery among black people and the gradual realisation of a sense of guilt among white people
Described by one linguistic scholar, King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was “not a legal brief on the intricacies of the civil rights movement in America, nor an intellectual treatise on the plight of black people.” Rather, it was a “fervent emotional sermon, forged out of the language and spirit of democracy. King’s mastery of the spoken word, his magnetism, and his sincerity raised familiar platitudes from cliché to commandment.”
By Stevie Edwards.
‘I Have A Dream’ has been widely acclaimed as a rhetorical masterpiece. What is Rhetoric?
Here are some famous definitions:
Plato: [Rhetoric] is the “art of enchanting the soul.” (The art of winning the soul by discourse.)
Aristotle: Rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”
Cicero: “Rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio.” Rhetoric is “speech designed to persuade.”
Quintilian: “Rhetoric is the art of speaking well.”
Francis Bacon: “The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.”
George Campbell: [Rhetoric] is “that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and influence the will.”
Note – Image was sourced from the Library Of Congress. There were no restrictions on the image so it is presumed to be copyright free.
6 May 2010
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