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Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech

 

Analysis > Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech

 

There are few more well-known or powerful speeches that that given by civil rights leader Martin Luther King on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

The most famous paragraph, embedded in the middle of the speech, is as follows:

"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 a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four 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."

So lets analyze this for the linguistic power.

 

Speech words Analysis
I have a dream that one day The dream is a frame for the future and sets the stage for the rest of the words. 'Dream' is vague aspiration. 'one day' starts to make it specific.
this nation will rise up A hint of revolution, a threat to white people, that may be scary but is tempered by subsequent words.
and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." A direct quote from Thomas Jefferson, 3rd US President and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Will be accepted as right by everyone. Lends gravitas to the speech.

'Creed' has religious connotations.

Implication that this is not true today, over 150 years after it was said.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia Repeating the 'dream', hammering home the hope for the future.

'red' hints at blood, implying pain, struggle and injustice. Georgia symbolizes the South.

the sons of former slaves 'slaves' implies injustice and is a highly evocative word for both black and white people (albeit in different ways).

Bringing up slavery suggests that it is still relevant today.

 and the sons of former slave-owners Slave-owners were white. Black and white are thus brought together. Repetition of 'slave' hammers home the point.

'Sons' implies both the weight of the past and the familial obligation.

will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. After the tension of the previous words, this offers reconciliation. 'Table of brotherhood' is a homely metaphor (both table and brother) and triggers feelings of comfort.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, Repeating the 'dream' phrase again to complete a triple.

'even' implies that Mississippi is one of the worst examples of racism. Yet this, too, is included in the dream.

'state' points at the formal State organization, noting that racism is institutionalized there.

a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, The southern state is hot. This is converted into oppressive heat in this powerful metaphor.
will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. Release again. After a tension-filled early part of the sentence, it ends with hope.

'transformed' implies deep change.

I have a dream that my four children The dream metaphor again. Now it is turning from a triple into a theme.

Children are always evocative. 'my' makes it personal to King and hence also personal to everyone listening.

will one day live in a nation Evoking the whole country - not just the south.
where they will not be judged by the color of their skin 'judge' is a word associated with oppression, which is mentioned earlier.

'color of skin' points to the heart of the matter.

but by the content of their character. Again, a softener at the end. Note the 'c's that alliterate 'content' and 'character'. 'c' is also a percussive consonant that bangs out the message. (the 'b's of 'but by' also have this effect).
I have a dream today. Ending as beginning, bracketing the whole paragraph.

Note that this is said on a rising upswing, not as a declining completion.

 

This is impressive stuff, but what is missing, that adds even more power?

First, there is the remarkable emotion in King's voice and body as he made the speech.

Secondly was the context, in the heart of capital city, on the steps to the memorial of the President who defeated the Southern states over the issue of slavery.

Thirdly, the zeitgeist of the day, the feeling and flavor of perpetuated slavery of black people in the continued racial bias, their rising up against this and the gradual realization of guilt in white people who stood by and did nothing. It was King's words and actions that prodded Kennedy into taking up the banner.

What was missed by some, was that King's address had a very strong message for white people, possibly as primary targets. Whilst he hinted at revolution, his words were mostly about peace, thus offering a vision into which everyone could buy.

See also

Analysis of Barack Obama's Victory Speech

 

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