Rhetorical Analysis of the I Have a Dream Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Length: 1025 words (2.9 double-spaced pages)
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From Doctor King’s speech, I quote: “ This is the faith that I go back to the South With. And with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful brother hood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to play together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” “And when this day happens, all men will be able to join hands and sing in the worlds of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty. We are free at last!””
These very moving words were the crescendo of Dr. King’s speech on August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His congregation spread before him was striving to grasp and hold every single thought that he brought forth. When you read his speech, it almost sounds jumbled, jumping from point to point and resolution to question. But if you can see yourself speaking on the steps of the memorial to the man that had given legal freedom to your people, you likewise would carry the emotions of what real and actual freedom would be like for the hundreds of thousands, seated before you.
Could a congressman or even President speak before hundreds of thousands in their usual rhetorical manner and speak of how America has gone back on it’s promise of freedom, how America has not given all men the constitutional right to be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Could the topics of all being God’s children and that they should all rise up on this day and leave the valley of dark, desolate valley of segregation and move on to the bright sunlit patch of racial justice and brotherhood. The truth is these topics do not and would not appear in any legislators or President’s speeches.
Dr. King was speaking as if he was Moses on Mount Sinai, bringing down the Ten Commandments. As if he was seated with Christ speaking to his apostles at the last supper. He felt this moment in time, on those steps before the Lincoln Memorial was his time to make his spirit, dedication and fervor for justice for the entire negro race be known from the hilltops of New Hampshire to the slopes of California and back to every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
Truly, Dr. King wasn’t delivering a speech, he was reaching out into the darkness and showing everyone listening that in his heart there was light of a new day coming, and that all should believe and see that same light as bright as he sees it.
In basic print, Dr. King’s speech is difficult to follow as he skips from dark thoughts to advances that are proof that progress is being made. But if you do that one basic thing, and visualize several hundred thousand people hanging on your every word and thought, and truly deliver that speech, you can see how moving it is and why it has held up over the years. It’s the same as sales, you have the words and thoughts, if you need to email them, you will type them a specific way, but when your customer is there in front of you, empathy, adrenaline and emotion will make those same words carry more power and likewise more success.
If you research Dr. King, his next most read memoir would be the letter from a Birmingham jail. Dr King still speaks with emotion and passion, but his delivery is entirely different because the enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of people celebrating every word is not there. His letter still has the constant flow of fact to metaphor to how it will become, just like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, but it is far easier to follow. The last major difference is this, in his letter from jail; he is a humbled servant of God asking for patience and forgiveness for himself. Whereas in August 1963, he was speaking as if he was the empowered one sent to lead the black race towards the promises and rewards of being an American. If you didn’t note some of the same metaphors used in both of the two oracles, you wouldn’t realize the same man wrote both speeches.
Timing is everything. Many of the speeches that we know from political history were successful based on when they were delivered. Knute Rockne’s famous “Boys let’s go out there and win one for the Gipper, are you with me?” Vince Lombardi, coach of the unstoppable Green Bay Packers, speaking of leadership, "Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all-the-time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Wining is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing...” Kennedy’s famous “ask not what the country can do for you, but rather, what can you do for your country” was at the beginning of the racial battles that he so hated. Dr. King’s speech in August 1962 was at the perfect time with racial conflicts going on throughout the South and Dr King’s rally cry piercing the cruelty with the dream of peace amongst brothers and freedom. President Johnson passed the civil rights act of 1964 furthering Dr King’s rally cry for the masses to join together, and amazingly the entire turn of public attitudes started to change, right before him. Unfortunately Dr King was shot and killed before all of the success stories could come true before him, but he was able to see the bridge that was built by vision and faith, and the masses joining him on his dream of freedom and equality.