Analysis of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech

Martin Luther King

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.


Published On: 6th May 2010

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  1. And I thought I was the sienslbe one. Thanks for setting me straight.

    Jaelyn 25 May at 7:38 pm
  2. Dr, martin, speech is wonderfull.the speech has a meaning especally for the people who are not from this country. i have a dream comes alot and, he wants to get the point throught peoples mind so he reapted the message many times.he also uses a lot of scentence because he does’t want to live like the way it is. he also doesn’t want his families and other families all across the world live the way he had to.what he is i don’t want to put up with this any more,and we people don’t want to judge by our colour,hair or the way we look but the way our personality is.

    azeb 21 Jul at 12:52 am
  3. The speech was to persuade people in Amirica. To let them know the truth and alet them.

    Hennock Mpazanje 21 Jul at 8:33 pm
  4. it is the best speech of persuading people due to the tone, allusion, refrain, repetition and theme he used.

    Hennock Mpazanje 21 Jul at 8:40 pm
  5. this a great speech

    bk 6 Sep at 9:48 am
  6. . . . . . . awesome !

    Jay Money 4 Nov at 2:28 pm
  7. i luv this speech its sooo great

    maahina k 6 Jan at 6:01 pm
  8. I think martin luther king is a marvellous speaker.
    He aims to mobilize the people to take action and he is successful.

    Samy 8 Jan at 3:02 pm
  9. Wow this is great init

    Anonymous 11 May at 12:09 pm
  10. The greatest Speech in the world history, contains power, Vission, and Hope.

    Melaye Olufemi 13 Jun at 12:55 pm
  11. This speech is vital for the people in America to learn from as they can spread the word of justice, to create equality amongst themeselves.

    Minoo 20 Jun at 8:25 am
  12. Interestingly enough, this wasw not the speech that he prepared for the day. Dr. King mentioned that he had a dream in the actal speech he wrote. Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind him and whispered “tell them your dream Martin”. So really, he was just speaking. And the fact that he could speak so elloquently on his own… magnificent.

    Erika 19 Sep at 10:34 pm
  13. a fantatic speech

    artaga 15 Oct at 6:28 pm
  14. good website

    me 1 Feb at 8:55 pm
  15. It’s one of its kind.

    Anonymous 10 Feb at 6:20 pm
  16. It’s one of its kind.

    It's one of its kind. 10 Feb at 6:20 pm
  17. Malcolm X is much better.

    shiz 6 Mar at 10:25 am
  18. he was an exceptional writer and an optimistic thinker he had a mindset of royal leaders who where born to lead.

    Anonymous 5 Apr at 3:47 pm
  19. We are all slaves, debt slaves. Not much has changed since that time.

    Luis 11 Aug at 8:45 pm
  20. this speech is great

    kit 14 Aug at 10:05 pm
  21. OMG !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! <3 <3 <3 <3 love this speech

    Cutie 21 Oct at 3:44 am
  22. a cool speech

    school ditstrict 26 Jan at 3:44 pm
  23. You hit the nail on the head! Well elaborated.

    Faunia 23 Feb at 11:20 am
  24. A great speech from a great man of ancient.
    Who will replace Martin Luther King?

    sharon 18 Mar at 11:38 am
  25. answered all my questions ! ty 🙂

    angel 11 May at 3:55 am
  26. This speech is for everyone not to judge people on what they do but on their real characteristics. Let us all reunite together and not make war all around the world

    Anonymous 27 May at 2:26 pm
  27. like this

    Anonymous 29 May at 9:13 pm
  28. loves it

    loves it 19 Jun at 8:26 pm
  29. really nice but i am not sure if i can trust this

    Anonymous 19 Sep at 2:33 pm
  30. Martin Luther king fais que je puisse avoir une vision dans ma vie avec son discour.Vraiment sa vision m’a permis que je prenne une decision dans ma vie telle que vivre dans une famille economiquement independante.Etre dans une communaute exclu par l’injustice en encourageant beaucoup les filles comme des femmes aux etudes.

    He is vision gave me a chance to be now considered as a citizen of the world.

    Bukuru Burubwa R. Jean de Dieu 24 Sep at 11:49 am
  31. We can only hope there is someone like Dr.martin Jr.

    B.B. 13 Jan at 4:37 pm
  32. cool

    empty 13 Jan at 7:18 pm
  33. I definitely agree with everything you said. MLK’s speech was one of the best I’ve ever heard and the only speech to give me goosebumps.

    Ismael Rivera 18 Jan at 3:43 pm
  34. I believe that MLK Jr’s speech was very inspiring. I believe that the best part was how his emotion played into his speech, and everyone could tell that he was very passionate about what he was saying. He didn’t just agree with his own words, he believed them.

    anonymous 18 Jan at 3:44 pm
  35. This speech is great because not only does it persuade but innovates people to make changes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is very passionate and serious about his proposal for equality. This is what makes it an amazing speech.

    APJ 18 Jan at 3:46 pm
  36. This speech is a great speech. I listen to it every year on MLK day and it blows my mind everytime.

    Kylee Clawson 18 Jan at 3:49 pm
  37. This speech is legenardy everyone should listen to it I feel this speech should be talked about more and mabey there would be less rasicum and there would be more love for all races.

    Tea' Mosqueda 18 Jan at 3:50 pm
  38. I’ve watched this speech every year since grade school and I am now a senior in high school. It never gets old. I feel that that Martin Luther King JR and his speech put a huge impact on the world and are a huge part of how it is today. I really appreciate this speech because if it wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be surrounded by these wonderful people in this here classroom.

    Hannah 18 Jan at 3:51 pm
  39. Martin Luther King’s speech is a great speech by not using violence and only words is powerful and helped take away the hate between the races and to this day his speech motivates other people to do great things

    oreo 18 Jan at 3:52 pm
  40. The things that I think makes this speech so memorable is the way Dr. King delivered his speech. He did a really great job at using precise and intellectual vocabulary. Another thing that made his speech so memorable is how he used the parts of speech. He used a lot of alliteration which I believe is very appealing to peoples ears. Also when he addressed his audience he focused on both blacks and whites, not just one group because he wanted everyone to live in peace. His speech gave people hope and something to think about.

    Alicia Burns 18 Jan at 4:00 pm
  41. This speech was every powerful, and to this day it still is! Not only it has a powerful purpose, but also how King had delivered this speech. In many ways I agree with him. I mean of course there will always someone/group of people who are going to be upset and try to do anything to stop us from making our society better. But violence isn’t going to fix the situation. If anything it’ll stir things up even more. King’s leadership and movement/speech not only started something amazing in society, but also it changed the world today. What’s more beautiful than eating together, sitting together, going to church together, praying together, learning together, and working together? Simple, nothing is more beautiful than that.

    Lena Dinh 18 Jan at 4:05 pm
  42. Very Fantastic speech

    Devyani 19 Jan at 1:36 pm
  43. the best

    Anonymous 19 Jan at 5:52 pm
  44. nice

    Anonymous 22 Apr at 1:20 am
  45. love it!!

    anono 10 Jun at 7:37 am
  46. 🙂 🙂

    anono 10 Jun at 7:38 am
  47. yes, it is very awsome

    Anonymous 5 Jul at 11:18 am
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