The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is a public speech that was delivered by American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on 28 August 1963. In this speech Martin Luther King is trying to expose the American public to the injustice of racial inequality and persuade them to stop discriminating on the basis of race by joining him in a campaign to extend the freedom of rights to all Americans. In this essay I will critically analyse the content of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I will identify and explain the type of text; identify and explain the purpose of the text; identify the target audience and identify and explain the persuasive linguistic rhetorical devices used in the text and the function thereof in order to persuade the audience.
Firstly the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King falls under the genre of non-fiction prose and is in the form of a political persuasive speech. This can be identified by the attention grabbing opening statement in paragraph 1 of the text stating ‘I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification– 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”.
Secondly the purpose of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King is to remind the American people that the goal of true freedom for African Americans had not yet been realised, to expose the injustice of racial inequality to the American public and ultimately persuade them to stop discriminating on the basis of race and enlighten them on the change that is coming. This can be deducted through phrases like “vicious racists”, “interposition”, “nullification”, “dream”, “will”, “able” and “join” in paragraph 1.
Thirdly the target audience of Martin Luther King’s speech is intended for the black and white American public. This can be found in paragraph 1 of the speech text stating “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with the little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Martin Luther King therefore addresses all races in his speech in order to create unison between black and white Americans.
In addition the various persuasive language and rhetorical devices used by Martin Luther King includes the following:
Anaphora can be found in paragraph 1, paragraph 2 and paragraph 3 of the speech text encompassing the phrase “ I have a dream”. This phrase occurs three times in the text. Through the repetition of the phrase ‘I have a dream’ Martin Luther King is able to emphasise and portray the vision he has for a racially equal American society and country and for everyone to get along. The repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” is convincing because the dreams that Martin Luther King presents to his audience is powerful and inspiring.
Allusion is used in the speech by Martin Luther King and can be found in paragraph 3 which states “I have a dream that one day 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, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together”. According to ( The Holy Bible: New International Version 1988:806) this allusion is a reference to Isaiah 40:4-5 in the Holy Bible. This reference is used by Martin Luther King to persuade his audience that his sentiments are in line with the Word of God and initiates an urgency in the audience to listen to his suggestions as they are God fearing. Another allusion is also made to an American patriotic song “My country ‘tis of thee” in paragraph 5 which appeals to the Americans patriotism.
Hyperbole which is an exaggerated claim or statement is used by Martin Luther King in paragraph 1 of the speech text stating “ I have a dream that one day 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, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together”. Hyperbole is used by Martin Luther King to motivate his audience that when all black and white citizens live in peace and have equal rights all other problems faced by the people will disappear, thus emphasizing the benefits of justice and equality and making the sentiment more powerful and convincing to the audience.
Parallelism can be found in paragraph 4 of the speech text which states “With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day”. Parallelism is used in the speech to intensify and emphasise the concept of unification through the repetition of “together” in the sentence.
Logos is used in the speech where Martin Luther King uses descriptive imagery and facts to appeal to the audience’s sense of logic and reason and make them understand the oppression that black Americans face. Pathos is used by Martin Luther King that appeals to his audience’s emotions. This can be found in paragraph 1 in the sentence “ 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”. This is suggested to make the audience feel guilty and empathetic for separating innocent children on the base of race. Ethos is present in the speech, characterised by Martin Luther King being well-spoken and the use of good grammar making him sound credible and educated.
Metaphor can be found in paragraph 4 with the sentence “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. In this sentence Martin Luther King compares the racial inequalities faced to “the jangling discords of our nation” and the achievement of equality to “ a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. These comparisons borrows emotional content from the issues faced, such as the guilt of the destruction caused by racial discrimination and impacts emotionally on the audience by portraying the peace to come if racism is abolished.
Onomatopoeia is found in paragraph 4 referring to the “jangling” which is a discordant metallic sound and describes to the audience the havoc the racial discrimination is wreaking. Martin Luther King makes use of inclusive language in his speech which is exemplified by the occurrences of the words like “our” and “we” in paragraph 4. The function of using inclusive language is used to suggest that the speaker and the audience are on the same side and that they share the same common prospects .
Emotive words such as “vicious racists” are used in paragraph 1 describe the severity of the racism with descriptive adjectives and provoke emotional reaction from the audience Repetition of the word “freedom” in the text reinforces the overall argument an message of the speech, thus emphasising what the text is about.
The tone of the speech is liberating, empowering and hopeful which also succeeds in persuading the audience. Symbolism is used in paragraph 4 referring to “ a stone of hope” where the stone refers to something permanent like hope should be, therefore reiterating the hopes and dreams Martin Luther King has for America.
Diction such as “interposition” and “nullification” represent the interventions and actions taken by the state and is used in the speech to expose the restrictions those racially discriminated against live under. This is suggested to evoke a sense of awareness is the audience. Ultimately Martin Luther King’s speech can be defined as a persuasive speech, because his implementation of the above mentioned persuasive language and rhetorical devices and strategies contributed to effective persuasion of his audience.
- The Holy Bible. 1988. New International Version. Cape Town: The Bible Society of South Africa.
- University of South Africa. Tutorial Letter ENG2602/101/3/2019: Genres in Literature and Language: Theory, Style and Poetics. Pretoria