A Summary of I Have a Dream Speech and Literary Devices Used

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One of the most well known referenced and studied speeches in American history is that of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. The speech was delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in front of thousands of people, both black and white, all with a common goal of striving for equality in America. The underlying purpose of King’s speech is two-fold in that it aims to encourage those who share King’s views to remain hopeful and to continue to fight for their freedom and equality, while also trying to persuade those in opposition to hear their plight as black citizens and to support them in their cause. The speech’s appeal is derived from the context in which it was created and delivered, that is during the March on Washington. However, its power is chiefly due to the effective use of persuasive and rhetorical techniques. In reading the extract of the speech, it does not take long to uncover several of those techniques. Thus, this essay will analyse how the extract of the speech sets about persuading the listeners through the use of a number of persuasive techniques, including repetition, anaphora, metaphors, allusions and rhetorical devices.

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To start with, the speech contains repetition and anaphora, which is the intentional repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line for emphasis. Anaphora is employed throughout the extract through the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream”. Through repeating this phrase, King develops an idea of what his dream entails and paints a picture of an integrated and unified America for his audience. The repetition helps to push the speech to a climax, creating a strong rhythm, making the speech more memorable for the audience. Anaphora is therefore used to appeal to the emotions of the audience, in order to persuade and motivate them to agree with his ideas. The repetition of “I have a dream” also makes the speech more emphatic, thus strengthening King’s dream that blacks would one day enjoy equal rights with the whites and they both could live in perfect harmony (Journal of studies..). In addition to anaphora, the rhetorical device repetition is used for emphasis, amplification and emotional effect.

Since the speech is given orally, the repetition helps the audience to comprehend King’s points. This is seen in, “work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together”in which the word ‘together’ is repeated five times. This repetition amplifies King’s vision of a democratic America, emancipated from the chains of prejudice. It also appeals to the audiences’ emotions through creating the image of all individuals coming together in unity with respect for one another, regardless of their different cultures, colours and beliefs. Through using the word ‘together’ the fact that all people – black and white – need to fight together is emphasised. Repetition is also used to create a sense of hope as well as urgency, as seen in the repetition of the words “one day” which reiterates that although they have not yet achieved the freedom and equality that they were promised, they inevitably will. The use of “one day” creates a sense of hope and reassurance through emphasizing that they will be free and treated equally because they will not give up and will get what they deserve. Furthermore, through the use of the modality word “will” a sense of assurance is created within the listener as the word ‘will’ shows high modality.

It is used to express how definite King is about their future and that they will get what they deserve. The final use of repetition is seen in the use of the word “today” which is used to create a sense of urgency. The speech stresses urgency with the repetition of “today” to focus the attention on the need for racial equality now, not some time down the road or in a little while. This persuades the audience to want to take action immediately. Through this repetition, the speech becomes a type of anthem in which he paints a picture of a country where there is unity and equality among all races. Furthermore, another rhetorical device that is seen in the speech is figurative language, more specifically metaphors and symbols.

The use of the aforementioned adds to the persuasiveness of the speech because it functions to convince the audience to agree with the speaker. King creates metaphors and symbols to help define his message and shape the audiences’ perception of his message. The words “mountain of despair”, “stone of hope” and “symphony of brotherhood” are used as figurative terms. “mountain of despair” symbolises their (the African Americans) feeling of unrest and discontent, while “stone of hope” and “symphony of brotherhood” symbolise overcoming this discontent and compares brotherhood to a group of togetherness, much like a symphony of instruments all playing together in beautiful harmony. One of the reasons why the speech is so persuasive is because of the strong imagery created through the use of metaphors. By using this colourful language, King helps the listeners to see what he is talking about, while also touching on an emotional chord, thus making the speech persuasive. Further adding to the persuasiveness of the speech is the use of allusion aimed at making King’s argument for equality.

Allusions are among the most important devices used in the speech, predominantly allusions to the Bible. This is seen in the lines “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight…” which references Isaiah 40:4-5. This connects the goals of the speech to the word of God, appealing to the morals of the listener. King also alludes to the famous patriotic hymn “My Country ‘tis of Thee”, appealing to the audience’s sense of nationalism, calling upon them to achieve the founding ideals of the nation – liberty and freedom (Michael Tan, 2017). These allusions tie King’s speech to the cultural language of the protestors and connect their cause to a set of noble ideals. Also worth noting are the symbolisms seen in the reference to Isaiah 40:4-5, in which vivid images are created in order to construct a more compelling argument. King equates their struggles to ‘valleys’ representing their ‘lows’, thus creating an image of suffering. Further symbolism is seen in “every hill and mountain made low” in which the ‘hills’ and ‘mountains’ symbolise negative feelings of inequality, “rough places made plain” which symbolise unrest and strife that is changed to rest, “crooked places made straight” which symbolise corruption and unfair circumstances being done away with and justice prevailing.

Through the use of figurative language, an image of their struggles as a nation in fighting for equality is created. In addition, the lines, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” symbolise what they can achieve through faith. “Hew” means to chop, cut or carve. Thus, this symbolises carving or cutting hope out of their despair. The mountain represents their struggle of inequality, racism, violence, and deprivation that they as black people have had to face, while the stone of hope is them over-coming all of the aforementioned triumphantly as a united people. They therefore, figuratively ‘break down’ their struggles and turn it into hope for a better future. Further adding to the persuasiveness of the speech is the use of pronouns in order to make the speech more inclusive. As King speaks he uses certain personal and possessive pronouns to address the crowd. Examples include referring to the United States as “our nation”, thus referring to the crowd as a whole, which includes the many black as well as white demonstrators. Through using the word “our” he refers to them as being a great body of people which creates a feeling of unity within the listeners mind. Further adding to this feeling of unity is the phrase, “this is our hope”. In saying this, the speech becomes more personal and meaningful for the listener which makes it more likely for the audience to respond to what is being said.

In addition to this, King refers to different regions in the United States such as Alabama and the South. This is done not only to identify himself with his people but also to give them a chance to find themselves in his speech. Once again, emphasis is put on them as being a great body of people through the use of the personal pronoun ‘we’ through the repeated use of the words “we will”. The use of the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ gives an effect of unity as it addresses everyone as a whole. This creates a feeling of inclusivity in the speech, as the audience is directly addressed. Using the word ‘we’ creates a bond with the audience, which serves to shift the responsibility of striving for equality onto the audience by persuading them think about what ‘they’ are going to do to achieve this. On top of that, the personal pronoun “I” is used when King speaks of his personal dream for his nation. This gives the speech a personal perspective. While the tone of the speech is professional, it expresses King’s personal feelings through the use of the “I” narrative. This makes the speech emotive and personal for the listener. Another point worth noting is the use of parallel structures along with emotive language, aimed at appealing to the audience’s emotions.

Emotive words evoke an emotional response in the audience. For instance the lines “with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification”, King creates a strong negative image. The words “vicious racists” contains strong emotional connotations, creating a feeling of negativity. The use of this emotive and figurative language stirs up the audience. This part of the speech intends on making the audience feel unsettled and bothered in an attempt to persuade them to take action in the Civil Rights Movement. However, this negativity is contrasted with a positive tone through an image of unity through the words, “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” As this image vividly depicts what their lives could be like if they were to continue to fight together. These words elicit a stronger, emotion-based response from the audience persuading them to fight for equality between all races in the United States. In closing, through the comprehensive use of repetition, anaphora, imagery, metaphors, allusions, and appealing to the crowd’s sense of emotion and logic, the speech served to persuade the audience to remain optimistic and faithful in the face of prejudice and despair.

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