Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech

Rhetorical Analysis of Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech

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More than 40 years ago, in August 1963, Martin Luther King electrified America with his momentous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, dramatically delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

His soaring rhetoric demanding racial justice and an integrated society became a mantra for the black community and is as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the US Declaration of Independence. His words proved to be a touchstone for understanding the social and political upheaval of the time and gave the nation a vocabulary to express what was happening.

The key message in the speech is that all people are created equal and, although not the case in America at the time, King felt it must be the case for the future. He argued passionately and powerfully.

So what were his compositional strategies and techniques?

Certainly King’s speech was well researched. In preparation he studied the Bible, The Gettysburg Address and the US Declaration of Independence and he alludes to all three in his address.

Stylistically the speech has been described as a political treatise, a work of poetry, and a masterfully delivered and improvised sermon, bursting with biblical language and imagery. As well as rhythm and frequent repetition, alliteration is a hallmark device, used to bang home key points.

The format is simple – always an aid to memorability! It falls into two parts.

The first half portrays not an idealised American dream but a picture of a seething American nightmare of racial injustice. It calls for action in a series of themed paragraphs. “Now is the time” is the first:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off o...


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...s a rhetorical masterpiece. What is Rhetoric?
Here are some famous definitions:

Plato: [Rhetoric] is the “art of enchanting the soul.” (The art of winning the soul by discourse.)

Aristotle: Rhetoric is “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.”

Cicero: “Rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronunciatio.” Rhetoric is “speech designed to persuade.”

Quintilian: “Rhetoric is the art of speaking well.”

Francis Bacon: “The duty and office of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.”

George Campbell: [Rhetoric] is “that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are to enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passion, and influence the will.”

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