"I Have a Dream"

An example of classical rhetoric in a post-modern speech

Seminar Paper, 2008

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content


1 “I Have a Dream”
1.1 Rhetorical Genre
1.2 Structure
1.3 Figures of Speech
1.3.1 Syntax
1.3.2 Pragmatics
1.3.3 Semantics

2 Summary

3 Sources
3.1 Primary Sources
3.2 Secondary Sources


“Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), was one of the pivotal leaders of the American civil rights movement.”[1] After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, King went on to study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University, where he deepened his understanding of theological scholarship and explored Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent strategy for social change. On December 5, 1955, after civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to comply with Montgomery's segregation policy on buses, black residents launched a bus boycott and elected King president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott continued throughout 1956 and King gained national prominence for his role in the campaign. In December 1956, the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional and Montgomery buses were desegregated. Seeking to build upon the success in Montgomery, King and other southern black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. In the spring of 1963, King and SCLC led mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where local white police officials were known for their violent opposition to integration. Clashes between unarmed black demonstrators and police armed with dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines throughout the world. President Kennedy responded to the Birmingham protests by submitting broad civil rights legislation to Congress, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Subsequent mass demonstrations culminated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, in which more than 250,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D. C. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.[2]

King is known as a charismatic orator. His way of persuading people was to use the power of words instead of physical violence. Words were his weapon and he knew how to use them. The same year after he had delivered this speech, he received the title “Man of the Year” by Time magazine. One year later, he was given the Nobel Peace Price. This paper deals with “I Have a Dream”, as a post-modern political speech in terms of classical rhetoric. A consecutively numbered edition of the speech is enclosed.

1 “I Have a Dream”

1.1 Rhetorical Genre

“I have a Dream” is a political speech, which contains elements of a sermon. In terms of rhetorical genres (genera orationis), according to the Aristoteleian classification, it is a deliberative speech (genus deliberativum). The other two genres that exist next to deliberative speech are epideictic speech, or eulogy, and the judicial speech. The latter one and the deliberative speech have in common that the audience must give a judgement or make a decision during the speech, whereas a eulogy is delivered to please the audience.[3] The eulogy and deliberative speech allow the orator to mix up the two parts narratio & argumentatio in terms of the strucure of a speech. In a judicial speech, narratio usually preceeds argumentatio. All of the three genres differ in their relevance in terms of time: judicial-past, epideictic-present and deliberative-future. Deliberative speeches are delivered to influence a decision that is made during a meeting or conference, and which concerns further actions. King delivered his speech on the steps of Lincoln Memorial during a demonstration for jobs and freedom. His speech reached not only the attendant crowd, but also politicians and interested people worldwide via television and radio. King gave advice how to act and what to change currently, so his vision of the common future for the American society might come true one day:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.[4]

1.2 Structure

The speech is divided into three main parts: exordium (introduction), narratio & argumentatio (main) and peroratio (closing). At the beginning of every speech, no matter if it is a judicial speech, a speech of praise (epideictic) or a deliberative speech, there is an exordium. The functions of the exordium are to make the audience attentive, docile and benevolent. Therefore, it contains a salutation, the topic or the cause, and sometimes flattery. Martin Luther King, Jr. needs only one short sentence to fulfill these three functions:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.[5]

With the starting seven words, King not only greets his audience, but he also makes them benevolent. He gives the gathered crowd a sense of unity. Despite the higher spatial position, the speaker wants to give his audience the impression that they are on the same level. By repeating the word “history” and using the superlative “greatest”, King puts an emphasis on the value and importance of the day and of his speech. His formulation makes the audience attentive and docile. But one should not discount his fame and the fact that he already had been introduced, before he demanded his speech. This kind of short introduction might malfunction, if it was for an orator with less prominence.

The narratio combined with an argumentatio begins in line 3. Small bits of information are given (brevitas), in a form of language that is clear and understandable for the audience (claritas). King argues from authorities, which makes him a trustworthy speaker and his narratio credible: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,…” (l. 3); “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words…” (l. 14f.). These are the authorities in the first two subchapters of the main part of “I Have a Dream”. In the third and last part, the authority is represented by the main audience itself, the protesters, King himself included: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America…” (l. 26f.). The three subchapters consist of a thesis preceding an antithesis, which is each time introduced by the word “but”. The first subchapter goes from line 3 to line 13. It is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the liberation of slaves. King’s antithesis begins in line 8: “But one hundred years later…”. Starting from line 14, his speech deals with the American Dream and equal rights for blacks and whites. His antithesis goes from line 23 to line 26: “But we refuse to believe…”. The last and the longest sub topic is about the demonstrations, their reasons, their patterns and goals. It goes from line 26 to line 53, whereby the antithesis starts in line 41: “But there is something…”.

The peroratio of “I Have a Dream” begins with a rhetorical question in line 53, to create pathos. Martin Luther King, Jr. enumerates injustices commited to Afro-Americans, before he reassures the audience from line 67 onward, with the help of his ethos, that their common goal will be achieved. He moves on with soothing, when he summarizes his speech through his “dream” in the lines 73 to 91. After sharing his “dream” with the audience King falls back on his profession as a preacher and ends his speech like a sermon inserting excerpts from “My Country ‘tis of Thee” and “Free at Last”.

1.3 Figures of Speech

1.3.1 Syntax

By inversion, i.e. the change of position of syntactic elements, the orator can put stress on a certain word or phrase. There are several examples of inversion in “I Have a Dream”, e.g. in line 8: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”

Another example of inversion can be found in line 36: “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content …”, or in line 71: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though…”. From line 73 to line 89 King makes use of inversion six times when he puts place names and the time phrase “one day” before the subject:

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 one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

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.

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.

I have a dream today.

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.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, 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.

The speech is full of repetitions. Repetitions fulfill the function of memorizing. Words that are crucial for the message of the speech reappear repeatedly. Some of them are “today”, “justice”, “together” and “freedom”. Figures of speech, that represent repetitions and, that appear in the speech, are parallelism, anaphora, epiphora, inclusio, geminatio, synonymy, paranomasia, asyndoton and polysyndoton. The simplest example is the geminatio in line 59: “No, no, we are not satisfied,…”. There is also one example of an inclusio: “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring” (l.112-113). The predominant figure of speech in King’s “I Have a Dream” is the anaphora. There is more than a dozen of anaphora in the speech:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our Nation's Capital to cash a check…But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. 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 or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.[6]


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

[2] http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/about_king/biography/

[3] Göttert, K. H. (p. 17)

[4] “I Have a Dream” (l. 41-47)

[5] “I Have a Dream” (l. 1-2)

[6] “I Have a Dream” (l. 8-32)

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"I Have a Dream"
An example of classical rhetoric in a post-modern speech
University of Duisburg-Essen
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ISBN (Book)
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Bis auf einige Rechtschreibfehler, die ich bei der eingestellten Datei korrigiert habe, war mein Professor mit dieser Arbeit sehr zufrieden. Im Anhang befindet sich King Jr.'s Rede.
Have, Dream, King, Rhetorik, rhetoric, Analyse, Rede, Textanalyse, Stilmittel, Klassische, classic, figures, speech
Quote paper
Ismail Durgut (Author), 2008, "I Have a Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/90948


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