I Have a Dream – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, addressing an audience.

"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 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."

An in-depth analysis of the speech that pushed forward a revolution for equal rights, and in turn helped to change the face of America in not only the eyes of it's own people, but also in those of the international community.
To view a video of the famous speech, click here.

1. Purpose of the speech.
2. Key ideas and structure.
3. Social context surrounding the speech.
4. Impact of the speech.
5. Relevant background (context) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
6. Verbal techniques used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
7. Language devices used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. Purpose of the speech.

The purpose of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C on the 28th of August 1963 before more than 200,000 people, was to encourage the enactment of change amongst the American people, and government, in relation to their improper views towards different races or ethnic groups in their society. Although Jews, Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics are mentioned, King places particular emphasis on the black Americans being victims, speaking of them from both personal and professional levels. Kings mission was to place significant pressure on the government (in particular Congress in regards to passing the Civil Rights Bill) and its people, by noting the errors of their ways and the promises which have undoubtedly not been kept throughout history. He demands change and provides solutions, and in doing so wanted to influence the nation to come together as one, therefore abolishing the long lasting unjust division between the American people. Although there was already a growing civil-rights movement across the country at the time, Martin Luther King’s speech successfully, and quite effectively, galvanized it.

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2. Key ideas and structure.

Martin Luther King’s most famous speech carried one powerful key message: that all people were created equal and, although not present in America’s society at the time, King passionately demanded it be the case for the future. Although this is the main idea of the speech, subsequent ideas are included to back up and emphasize it. Below you will find a list of which I believe are the key ideas that King wanted to portray, and with each I have provided evidence from the text.

1. That all people were created equal and, although not present in America’s society at the time, King passionately demanded it be the case for the future
“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.”
2. Action towards the issue should be done so peacefully.
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.”
3. The Governments action towards the issue has been spoken of; however action has never effectively occurred.
“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check… a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." “
4. There is hope for everybody.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
5. Equal rights, and in effect greatly improved civil rights, are the answer.
“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."

King also expressed a very strong message towards white people; somewhat hinting at revolution and possibly that they were primary targets. However this strong message was overcome with words of peace, therefore proposing a vision in which everybody would support.

The structure of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is quite fascinating. The speech begins talking about the dreadful past, but ends as a hopeful beginning for all American people; the very words “I have a dream” sets a frame for the future. He begins his speech with a short introduction and greeting, in which he unites the people standing before him. By uniting the people before him, he further enhances the support towards the issue being raised. In the next section of his speech, King gives some historical background on the issue, and then continues on to how the problem stands to this day. In doing so, he makes direct reference to the fact that the government promised equal rights to all through the Declaration of Independence. However he then goes on to talk about how even to this day such statement is not enforced. The next section deals with why such a problem should be corrected, in which he labels the benefits for black Americans such as “freedom and security”. By doing so, King has given the audience a small glimpse of a better life, therefore securing a great amount of support for his forthcoming ideas. Next, King outlines his goals in relation to the solution, and whilst doing so “proves” how alternatives cause more problems. Afterwards he explains how to achieve these goals, and then, quite successfully, attempts to convince the crowd even further by visualising what life would be like with these goals achieved. During this time, he enhances his speech through the use of repetition and metaphors, and then continues on to conclude his main goals with somewhat sensational statements which everybody can relate to. A dramatic finish to the speech is welcomed with praise by all present, with Martin Luther King exclaiming the words "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

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3. Social context surrounding the speech.

Before the great civil rights movement of the 1960’s, America was suffering from a great racial divide, with racial discrimination at its peak. The white Americans had made themselves superior, and therefore the reality of life for black Americans was quite bleak. For a vast majority of black Americans, segregation was a way of life, living with gross inequities in housing, employment, public accommodation, medical services and education. Living in isolated tenements was the norm, particularly to those in the South, as white landlords refused them rent. Black children attended separate, substandard schools in comparison to those attended by whites. Blacks had little access to decent work, usually finding themselves in positions of service to white employers. As a result of this, in 1950 75% of black American families were considered to be living in poverty, earning less than $3000 a year. To further the out casting and degradation of the black community, southern blacks were denied access to many public facilities such as hospitals, movie theatres, restaurants and parks. In some cases, “For Whites Only” signs were placed on public conveniences such as park benches and water fountains, which by law blacks had to obey. Other racist laws existed too, including those that meant blacks must sit at the back of buses and trains, and that blacks must sit on the balconies of court rooms and movie houses. Unlawful acts of violence against blacks, such as those pursued by the KKK, were often ignored by society, and black Americans could expect little help from law enforcement officials. In fact, instances of intimidation and/or brutality by law enforcement officials such as the police were common, and once again ignored by society.

As you can see, the black Americans could do little to change their status in society, and therefore had to withstand anything thrown at them. Not even the election of a preferred president could help them, as many were denied from participating in America’s political process. State laws, poll taxes, reading tests and even beatings from police kept them from casting their votes on Election Day.

It was within such an unjust atmosphere that Martin Luther King was able to rise up as a powerful leader in the civil rights movement.

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4. Impact of the speech.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the entire campaign titled “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, is credited with assembling supporters of desegregation and prompting the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, colour, sex or national origin in relation to: voting, employment, and public services, such as transportation, throughout America.. Also, projects involving federal funds could be immediately cut if evidence was found involving discrimination based on colour, race, or national origin. The Act contained many things which King had previously publically asked of the government, which shows that the government was actually listening to the people regarding this issue This Act was the beginning of a better life for those across America previously discriminated against, and although powers to enforce such Act were initially weak, these would be suplemented in later years.

After the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Time Magazine labelled Martin Luther King man of the year for his efforts protesting civil rights. Below is a small excerpt from the magazine, reporting some of the changes that happened after Martin Luther King addressed his speech “I Have a Dream”.
"The march (on Washington) made irreversible all that had gone before in the year of the Negro revolution," the magazine continues. "In that year, the Negroes made more gains than they had achieved in any year since the end of the Civil War. A speedup in school integration in the South brought to 1,141 the number of desegregated school districts. In the North, city after city reexamined de facto school segregation and set up plans to redress the balance. In 300 cities in the South, public facilities - from swimming pools to restaurants - were integrated, and in scores of cities across the nation, leaders established biracial committees as a start toward resolving local inequities. ... Still, for every tortuous inch gained, there are miles of progress left to be covered."
With so many changes occurring after the landmark event on 28th of August 1963, it clearly shows the immediate impact that Martin Luther King, and his fellow protesters, had on the general society at the time. However, as the article states, more did need to be done.

In the month of December, 1964, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, in particular his work in the March on Washington. At only age 35, King is the youngest person to have ever received such award, with the chairmen of the Nobel Committee stating “King is the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence”.



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5. Relevant background (context) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King was born on the 15th of January 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother was a highly respected school teacher. As a child, King spent many hours at his fathers church, listening to his father preach and singing in the choir. Because of this, he adopted many Christian values which he would use later in life, such as “love your enemies” which is evident in his world famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Other than church, the young King enjoyed riding his bicycle, playing baseball and football, and reading. He was a very good student at school, excelling at everything he did. The teachers recognized this talent, evident as he was skipped grades in both elementary and high school.

Unfortunately, King learnt about discrimination from a young age. When he was 5 years old, he liked to play baseball with some white sons of a nearby grocer. One day, he went to their house to ask to play, but was told by the mother that he was never to go near her sons again because he was black. King was deeply hurt by this; however it wouldn’t be the last time in his childhood years. When he was 14 years old, King won a speaking contest in Dublin, sponsored by the Negro Elks Society. The fact that he won such a competition demonstrates his powerful speaking ability at a young age. However more significantly, he was forced to give up his seat to a white person on the bus ride home; forcing him to stand for the 90 mile trip.

After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, King decided to follow the family tradition by becoming a Baptist minister, just like his father. To do so, he attended Crozer Seminary and successfully graduated. It was his work as a Baptist minister which embedded in him the awareness of the “urgency of the moment” and the ability to make sudden alterations to his plans (as he did during “I Have a Dream” by improvising his speech from half way through). This skill helped King establish a friendly relationship with his ever-changing audience, so that he could consistently communicate on a meaningful level.

It was at Crozer Seminary where King learnt of his future inspiration, India's Mohandas K. Gandhi. In order to encourage the British Rulers of India to leave his country, Gandhi had his people protest non-violently; which was a great success.

King would use Gandhi’s philosophies of non-violent protest in 1955, when King organised a non-violent protest towards the Jim Crow laws which limited what blacks could do and where they could go in society. The non-violent protest came in the form of a boycott of the city bus service. This non-violent protest was very successful, and as a result he was made president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. For the next 12 years, Martin Luther King led the fight civil rights, successfully maintaining and using the values he had learnt growing up.

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6. Verbal techniques used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King used many verbal techniques throughout his speech titled “I Have a Dream”, however I think the one which most stands out was his creative use of the dramatic pause. A dramatic pause is used to emphasize what you have just said and what you are about to say. By pausing, the audience is kept curious as to what you are about to say, meaning that you will have their attention secured. Normally, overuse of the dramatic pause would be boring and annoying; however King uses it in a different style. King definitely uses the dramatic pause on purpose, and does so on a regular basis, however he continues on with his speech quick enough that the audience doesn’t actually get annoyed or bored with it. These “quick dramatic pauses” means that he consistently has the audience’s attention, which is evident with the frequent clapping of the audience. An example of his use of the dramatic pause can be seen in the section which he repeatedly states “Now is the time…”. By pausing after these words, the words he states after are emphasized to an extent which they are seen as great importance by the audience, and therefore the urgency to act seems greater.

Another verbal technique used by Martin Luther King is the raising/lowering of his voice in relation to his tone. By using this correctly in key parts of the speech, King successfully places emphasis on the words being said. Although it may seem like King uses the same tone and volume throughout most of the speech, in key areas of emphasis we see this change. When key sections come up, King raises his voice and in turn his tone is also affected. The raising of his voice emphasizes the importance of his words, with the audience taking greater notice of such words. A good example of this technique can be heard in the climatic ending of the speech, in which he exclaims the words “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!". As he exclaims these words, he raises the volume of his voice significantly, and the tone of his voice is changed to suit such emotion. By suddenly changing two elements of his voice, he himself appears incredibly relieved, which then evokes the same emotion throughout the audience. He would not have been able to obtain such effect with a normal tone and volume, as the amount of emotion which can be expressed with those constraints in place is very little. Therefore to express his desired emotion, he had to change these two elements of voice significantly, which he did so with great success.

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7. Language devices used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the text “I Have a Dream” which some call a work of art, Martin Luther King uses many language devices and rhetoric to make the speech more effective, and therefore more persuasive. The most obvious of these techniques is the use of repetition, which can be recognized somewhat heavily throughout the whole speech. The continuous repetition of an idea not only promotes clarity, but also encourages the audience to accept the idea being presented. Through the use of this technique, your idea is emphasized to the extent that the audience is led to believe that any ideas competing with yours are of lesser importance, and are sometimes driven out of the audiences mind entirely. Although the clearest example of repetition in King’s speech is with the words “I have a dream” (which hammers home the hope for the future), I believe a better example is when the words “Now is the time…” are repeated. By continuously repeating these words, King is emphasizing the fact that action needs to occur at that specific time, which creates a sense of urgency about the situation, and therefore encourages people to act.

Another powerful language device used by King was allusion. An allusion is when a composer, or in this case speech writer, makes reference either covertly or indirectly to another text, person or event, within their own text. However, in order for the audience to understand, they must actually know what the speaker is referring to. Because of this, usually only better known texts, people or events are referred to. Throughout King’s speech “I Have a Dream”, he makes reference to a number of widely respected sources such as the Bible, the United States Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and, as they are at his memorial, Abraham Lincoln. In doing so, he is somewhat comparing the current situation with that of the sources, which can evoke a number of different feelings or attitudes from the audience. Near the beginning of his speech, King speaks the words “Five score years ago...”, which would automatically remind the audience of Abrahams Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago”, which he used to open his Gettysburg Address. By doing this, King is effectively making comparisons between their current situation and that of Abraham Lincolns. Both Abraham Lincoln and King were fighting for civil-rights, and they were at Lincoln’s memorial, so such an allusion was perfectly suitable for the speech and situation of the day. The fact that Lincolns Gettysburg address came 4 months after an important defeat in the fight for civil rights, such an allusion would evoke the feelings of relief and hope amongst the 250,000 strong audience of the day.

Martin Luther King used metaphors just as much, or possibly more than, he used repetition throughout his speech “I Have a Dream”. A metaphor links two subjects that usually would not be linked. A metaphor is used to effectively state that two subjects are the same or equal, therefore transferring one subject’s attributes over to another. King used this technique with great success; helping to convey his ideas to a broad range of audience members. A great example of the use of metaphors in his speech is in the following sentence: “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In this sentence, “lonely island of poverty” and “vast ocean of material prosperity” are the metaphors. These metaphors are used to emphasize the current state of the black community in America, and also quite possibly to make such a statement easier to understand throughout the audience. The sentence effectively puts across the message that, while America is rich and its people, hinting at the whites, are living in happiness, the blacks have been isolated into a community living in poverty (in comparison to the whites). The same message could have been put across through a more simple sentence, however the message would not have been as effective in evoking the desired emotions from the audience towards the issue. 



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