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King was a clergyman who employed non-violent methods to achieve an advancement of Civil Rights, not just in USA but around the world. He became an icon of modern American liberalism due to his flair for motivating his audiences into action and this was recognised by him being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. His father was also a Baptist preacher so it isn’t surprising to see that it impacts his choice of language. He was already accustomed to forming a relationship with his audience in order to communicate meaningfully and he simply transferred this talent from religion to politics.
In this speech he uses a range of techniques, from the repeated use of an anaphora to the use of a more simplistic metaphor, many of which are influenced by his background.
This is evident when he talks of “God’s children.” This religious imagery establishes trust, builds hope and forms a rapport which brings King closer to his audience which means they are persuaded to agree with what is said.
A more subtle example is the use of paradox to heighten his message. By saying that they should meet “physical force with soul force” he is showing his spiritual roots and his belief of always having a non-violent protest. This inspires optimism and boosts morale, making it motivational.
Emotive language is frequently used to create sympathy for his cause and manipulate the feelings of the audience, an example of which is “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation.” This is also a metaphor which visualises the message of how Negroes are restrained in society to such an extent that it is like being in prison, making it memorable.
The proverbial tone reflects his Baptist roots and arouses the crowd.
“We cannot walk alone” is an example of an aphorism which is designed to make a concise point meaning it stays in the listeners mind for longer. A personal pronoun is also included which made the audience at that time feel like they were all in it together. It personalised the speech and avoided being too preachy, which may have been a problem due to King being a clergyman, and universalises message inciting hope that each person can make a change.
A hypophora “When will you be satisfied?” implants the idea that they aren’t content in their mind and the use of erotisis implies strong affirmation of support whilst engaging the listener. This paragraph culminates in a bible quote that includes a simile. Not only does it show how his religious up bring affects his use of language but the simile provides optimism for the audience, adding to how motivational the speech is.
The series of short abrupt sentences beginning with “let freedom ring” have a didactic tone in that he is trying to teach a moral lesson and, once again, shows the influence his background as a preacher has on his choice of words. The scope of the message is widened to national scale by pin pointing major US cities and encourages everyone to share his view.
In his opening sentence he sets the historical context which adds gravitas and makes it sound monumental. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was right in saying it would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom” as many believe this speech prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination. This assured style gained the trust and support of his listeners to join him on his crusade for justice.
He uses 2 metaphors in the sentence “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” to simplify the situation for the audience. It clarifies the message that while America is rich, Negroes are forced to live in poverty which shows the segregation and reveals attitudes. He could have explained this without the use of a metaphor yet it wouldn’t have had the same impact on the audience or whipped the crowd into hysteria as it did.
He personifies “Now” to add forcefulness to the message and incite immediate action. After this, an anaphora is used to reiterate the vital point. The continuous repetition of an idea provides clarity as well as encouraging the audience to accept it, causing them to forget all other ideas. The anaphora “Now is the time…” illustrates this as it creates a sense of urgency encouraging people to act and inspiring confidence.
By listing scenarios in which Negroes find themselves, he is indirectly involving the audience and cleverly relates the concept of injustice to the everyday man. This provides grounds for his argument and stirs up emotions by evoking possibly painful memories and motivating them to support him.
The juxtaposition of “dark and desolate valley…” causes the listener to think more deeply about it and work out what this means and the impact it has on them. The alliteration highlights this idea and the imagery inspires hope for the future.
“Five score years ago…” reminiscent of one of Lincoln’s speeches and this allusion acts as a comparison between current situation and the one at the Lincoln’s time. This would have evoked feelings of relief and hope amongst King’s audience as it showed how he was going to continue the fight for justice that other people had started. It would have been particularly emotional as King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial which made it all the more motivational.
His pace is slow and deliberate, reflecting that of a preacher. Careful syntax and delayed sentences allows his opinion to settle in their mind as well as building anticipation. He knows his audience so is able to control how they feel which means he can motivate them more easily.
The dramatic pauses emphasise what is said and what will be said meaning the audience is kept curious and their attention is secured. Overuse can be annoying however King continues his speech quick enough that the audience doesn’t get bored. The break in dialogue provokes thought and during those breaks the audience clap which shows they are concentrating on what is said.
Intonation is used to express meaning and affects tone in key parts. Raising his voice marks importance of words and the audience takes greater notice. “Free at last!” is exclaimed at the climatic ending of the speech and he raises the volume and tone of his voice to show his passion therefore evoking the same emotion throughout the audience thus instilling confidence.
The huge range of rhetoric used means it was very appealing to those listening at the time and will continue be for all future generations. It is particularly significant in the 21st Century as America has its first black president which proves how much things have changed since King’s time. His aim was to unite the nation which he achieved with this speech. He uses a peaceful approach as there is no use of invection and it does not criticise the white man which meant that it appeals to white and black people because both would have felt it was relevant to them. His rapport with his audience caused them to become open to his dream, meaning it was no longer just a black man’s dream but also the white man’s dream. It then became American’s dream. It is now America’s reality.
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