Speech Analysis: I Have a Dream - Martin Luther King Jr

On August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the monumental “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This speech was intended to reflect King’s social experiences of the mistreatment of African Americans, drawing upon appeals to American’s myths as a nation founded to provide freedom and justice to all people. Its rhetoric provides redemption to America for its racial sins. King’s was effective as it illustrated the racist problems of the time and caused the audience to feel sympathy while providing hope to the depressed African American population.

As an African American activist and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King established his reputation as one of the greatest operators in American history. He achieved this milestone through his use of allusion, metaphor, and anaphora.

King uses rhetorical devices in his speech such as allusion when King refers to several different works comparable to the Bible or Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”.

Syncing King’s ideas with what is considered righteous by many people encourage the audience to remember important parts of the past and help them understand the situation; all of which are important to the success of the speech. An example of this is when King begins his second sentence with “Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic show we stand today …” (Let.rug.nl, 1963). By using this statement, he alludes to Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg address”, thus arousing a sense of patriotism in his listeners. The use of allusion in the opening line also establishes a standard of expectation for the rest of his speech.

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Due to the fact that the “Gettysburg Address” endorsed human rights while its speaker, Abraham Lincoln, was well remembered as a staunch supporter of black Americans. By using a similar style of opening as Gettysburg’s Address, King effectively sets a comparison between Lincoln’s speech and his own. This allusion reminds the audience of a line from Gettysburg’s Address: ‘A government of people, by the people and for the people’ and that one of the greatest men in history opposed segregation – a concept which Lincoln expounded upon in the context of his speech (Abrahamlincolnonline.org, 1863). Another impact that the opening phrase “Five Score” was the allusion to the grandiose language of the Bible, adding power to his speech. Both Lincoln’s and King’s audiences were mainly Christians. By syncing his words with the Bible, King manages to make the audience feel as if his arguments are righteous and should be supported. Furthermore, it allows King to open his listeners’ ears and hearts by adding an unmatchable force. Thus, giving his audience the enthusiasm and drive to continue the Civils Right Movement and enduring hardship ahead.

Metaphors, another useful rhetorical device that has been used in this speech as ethos and pathos are essential to creating an impact of the speech. King uses a series of metaphors in the middle of his speech, claiming that by “The Constitution and Deceleration of Independence”, the forefathers of America were “singing a promissory note” that all people, whatever color, would be granted the same rights. However, King then says in the view of the Negroes that “America has given the Negroes people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ”insufficient funds.” (Let.rug.nl, 1963). This has made the audience understand the differences in the promises about the rights for African Americans. Later on, Kings states that many equal rights activists have been “battered by the storms of persecution” and the “winds of police brutality”. Through these metaphors, King paints the upholders of the Jim Crow laws, the laws suppressing blacks in a bad light. Both related to ethos as the first metaphor invokes the ethic of keeping promises while the second metaphor involves torture, something which most American population opposed. Finally, King uses serval last metaphor when he says, “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” This metaphor on the other hand, is related to pathos as the audience immediately inspires due to his choice of words. These metaphors make the audience realize that continued racial injustice will lead to total chaos while racial equality leads to a harmonious society. Thus, the metaphors Kings uses ethos and pathos, as they make the audience realize that the US government lied to the Negroes as a result it increases the effectiveness of the speech.

A strong of use anaphor incorporate in his speech embodies the rhetorical mode of pathos. “One hundred years later” is repeated three times in one paragraph and “Now is the time” four times in another. Through constant repetition, King aims to emphasize his point of rights for African American’s in the listener’s mind. Another example is when King repeats “We will not be satisfied” multiple times, followed by an example of injustice suffered by African Americans that they will not discriminate until it is eliminated. Furthermore, “I have a dream that on day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”; “I have a dream that one day on the red hill Georgia sons…” emphasizes the fact he can see a new America; an America free from racial injustice and cruelty. Moreover, the anaphora used here also emphasizes King’s wish for freedom from all parts of the nation, evident by how he references places all over America. It also reinforces pathos, as constant repetition arouses the audiences. Therefore, the frequent use of anaphor in King’s speech emphasizes to the audience that African Americans will not stop until racism is eradicated and a new America emerges.

Overall, the speech “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King has had a powerful impact which helps portray the racism of America in the 1900s, achieved through the rhetorical devices used by King. The allusion has been used to references the speech to a well-known speech while metaphor has been used to create an image in the listener mind and anaphor is used to reinforces the ideas. “I Have A Dream” clearly represents the injustice and mistreatment faced by African Americans, remaining as one of the most resonating and iconic human rights addresses in modern history.


Archives.gov. (1963). [online] Available at: https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
Let.rug.nl. (1963). Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech August 28 1963 < 1951- < Documents < American History From Revolution To Reconstruction and beyond. [online] Available at: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1951-/martin-luther-kings-i-have-a-dream-speech-august-28-1963.php [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].

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Speech Analysis: I Have a Dream - Martin Luther King Jr. (2020, Sep 11). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/speech-analysis-i-have-a-dream-martin-luther-king-jr-essay

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