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Essay: Analysis of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.: Unlocking Its Rhetorical Devices

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Analysis of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.

Leo Lai (10G)

On 28th August 1963, an eloquent speech was given in Washington D.C. by the leader and the spokesperson of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1960s, racial segregation in the southern part of the United States was fierce. African-Americans were treated differently that they were especially discriminated by the White people. For instance, there were different bus stops and restrooms to separate the White and the Black so that the Black would not defile the blood of the White. In this particular speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights activist, aimed to stop the racism and to promote equal civil rights. This speech, yet, is still one of the most influential and prominent speeches in American history, as the message conveyed is clear. The massive use of rhetorical devices also effectively persuades the audience.

To commence with, the theme of the speech is evident as it is already presented at the beginning, which is the theme of anti-racism. In paragraph two, King wisely invokes the word “score” used by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, an address to promote equality for all no matter the race, to describe the number of years that slavery has been outlawed. This phrase has shown his compassion and effort to achieve racial equality like how Abraham Lincoln did. King next quotes the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order signed by Lincoln to prohibit slavery and he describes the document as a “silver lining” in the cloud to the Negroes a hundred years ago and the document aims to set the African-Americans free from slavery. King nevertheless continues focusing on the theme by criticizing how the social problem of racism is still lingering in America in the form of segregation even after the Emancipation Proclamation is signed. He then starts to give examples to substantiate on his criticism like how the Negroes are still separated and discriminated by the White in the public as if they do not belong to the country. In paragraph six and seven, he starts to remind America that racial injustice must end, which is also the theme of the speech. He suggests that if Black people are not granted citizenship rights, the United States will never achieve true peace. King tries to remind the White Supremacist that if the White people are not giving equal rights to the Black, the Black may take further actions. It also anticipates that America will never be calm and serene if the problem of social segregation is not solved. This shows King’s strong stance and attitude towards promoting racial equality. On the contrary, King also points out that the Black people should also respect and credit the White people, as he recognizes the destiny of America is that the Black and White must cohabitate together peacefully as it is the only way American’s future is going to be. Starting from paragraph ten, King starts to express his hope for the country, including the stop spreading of racism in the southern states and how racism can be stopped by people of different races respecting each other like people being treated equally, nobody being slaves and nobody being stereotyped by his or her skin color. Lastly, King reinstates his sincere and cordial wishes for the country and how White people and Black people are treated the same as brothers and sisters. He dedicates the “freedom ring” from states that racial segregation was not much of an issue like California and Colorado (the western states) to the southern states which are more affected by racism such as Tennessee and Mississippi. The “freedom ring” spreads over America, even to every single town and community as King wishes people of different origins, different belief, different races and different ethnicity to live together peacefully without these barriers.

In this short speech, Martin Luther King Jr. uses a precise yet powerful use of rhetorical devices along carefully decorated wordings. For rhetorical techniques, alliteration is an important element used in this speech. Alliteration refers to the repetition of sounds at the beginning of words in a sentence. For instance, in the sentence “in a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check”, the words “come”, “capital”, “cash” and “check” begin with the letter “c” and are pronounced the c-sound. This more or less makes the sentence more catchy and memorable. The other notable example comes from “we can-not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi can-not vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no….”. The words “cannot”, “Negro”, “new”, “nothing” and “No” all start with the letter n and hence are pronounced with the same syllable. This again makes the quote more haunting and memorable. Other than alliteration, Martin Luther King Jr. uses repetition (anaphora) to form the most remarkable yet important part of the speech: “I have a dream”. Paragraphs 11-18 all start with the phrase “I have a dream…” and this has clearly become the reason people nowadays still remember this speech. Moreover, the only usage of simile in the speech is in the sentence “No, no, we are… until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”, which is a quotation from the Bible (Amos 5:24). The author describes justice as waters and righteousness as mighty stream so that justice and righteousness will be strong and powerful enough like nature so that they can support the whole community. Additionally, there are countless metaphors used in the address. Again, in the sentence “in a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check”, the check is a metaphor for the Constitution and the Declaration of Independent, a founding document of the United States of America; the money behind the check is hence symbolizing the rights that African-Americans that are guaranteed in the document. The second example for the use of metaphor is more musical and rhythmic, as the sentence “with this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” has the phrases “jangling discords” and “symphony”. King describes the racial segregation in the country as jangling discords, like the combination of musical notes that do not pleasant and harmonic together. Nonetheless, he later describes the future of racial equality as a symphony, where different parts in a piece of music that are harmonic with each other. This sentence, therefore, means people (Americans) can eliminate racial inequality by wiping out racial segregation. In the second paragraph, the sentence “five score years ago” makes use of both ethos and allusion as this phrase was used similarly by Abraham Lincoln (mentioned above) when he was delivering the Gettysburg Address. King is using the credibility of Lincoln in order to raise the reliability of the speech. Furthermore, the other prominent usage of rhetorical device in the speech is parallelism. For instance, at the end of the speech, King uses “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos…”. This again makes the lines more unforgettable. Another example can be found in the sentence “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together…”. King has used this phrase for five times consecutively in order to create the sense of similarity.

In this speech, Martin Luther King Jr. mainly promotes racial equality by eliminating racism and racial segregation. By using plentiful of strong rhetorical devices, he has successfully made his speech more credible and prominent that even people born in the 2000s (50 years after the speech is addressed) have become familiar with it. In this modern world, where racism and racial discrimination still linger, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech shows us these problems can only be solved in a peaceful and definitely not in a violent way.

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