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The “I Have a Dream Speech” delivered by Martin Luther King in 1963 is arguably one of the most well recognized and praised speeches within American history for not only its revolutionary messages but also in the way which the speech itself was crafted. What literary and rhetorical device does King most effectively utilize within this speech that allows him to convey his messages of a call to justice in relation to time?
The concept of a speech is to insight revelation, to inspire the audience, and to expand minds through the passionate connecting power of the human voice. The “I have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C is the epitome of all of those aspects, and is famously memorable not only from the words themselves, but also the way in which King manages to tie the words together to create a deeper meaning. In the formation of his words, King best utilizes the rhetorical device of repetition, both literally and conceptually, to create a complete message of a call to action in the present to fight the injustices that have existed since the long-ago past. The repetition is used on only the lines that King aimed to emphasize the most, and it is within these passages in which King’s passions reside.
The first use of clear repetition that King implements within his speech is the use of “one hundred years later…” in order to paint a picture three times in a row of the bleak and unacceptable conditions of black citizens of the United States, despite the call to action made so long ago to seemingly end this struggle. This repetition is in stark contrast with the paragraph before it, in which King seemingly celebrates the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he describes as a “momentous decree”. Because of this, however, he instills a sense of “shameful” feelings and urgency within his readers after essentially saying that this positive landmark in history is being overshadowed by the lack of progress made even “one hundred years later” as people are still “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”. This repeated phrase puts time into perspective, and by repeating it, King emphasizes the ridiculousness of the lack of progress made in such a long period of time. He emphasizes and repeats the word “still” to connect the past to the present so that nobody may forget that the injustices in the present are not so far off from the injustices of the past. In this way Martin Luther King plays on the compassions of the audience and creates validity for his upcoming arguments. It is through repetition that he implies anger and insult without directly having to speak words of that nature.
The arguably most famous and significant use of repetition in the speech is the section in which Martin Luther King begins his mantra of “I have a dream…” phrases. This phrase is introduced through the theme of resilience, as he says, “even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” Familiarly, the word “still” is used to promote the idea that injustice will not defeat the oppressed. Not only does the phrase “I have a dream” represent resilience, but also and most importantly represents the idea of hope. A dream is synonymous with optimism, and not only that, but also acts as motivation for reality. King’s specific choice to use “dream” as the main symbolic object for this speech acts as not just a dream for him, but for everyone in America to share, and he even admits to this when he says that “it is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”. In this portion of the speech, King utilizes repetition to solidify a poetic symbol, but it can also be seen that he uses the device of contrast in order to first bring up a feeling of sadness and then lift the reader from that by following with a feeling of hope. This is exemplified, for example, in the line “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice…of oppression…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”. Through this device, he creates a visual of redemption and regrowth that leaves a lasting impact on the minds of his audience and emphasizes that this movement should not be carried out through hate but through the idea of “brotherhood”. The repetition of “I have a dream” sends a message of love in a time of hate, as opposed to spreading more hate that can be found, as he says, with the “vicious racists”. Looking at this speech melodically, the “I have a dream” portion can be seen as a build up and as a climax of passion. King repeats the phrase with exclamation to raise excitement for the future to come but also to preach to an audience that feeds off of the longing for change not later, but “today”. The preaching-like delivery of this line also implements a theme of faith in what he is saying, which is something that allows many to better relate to his words and passions.
Repetition is used in less obvious ways within King’s speech, and these instances present themselves in more conceptual forms rather than just literal ones. Acting as a sort of conceptual helix, King’s idea of unity through the symbolic act of holding hands appears once and then reemerges at the end of the speech to tie together this theme of togetherness. At one point within the speech, King paints an optimistic and innocent picture where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”. His implicit use of children as the subject of this picture points to the idea that brotherhood and unity are concepts so basic that even children can conceptualize them, therefor people of all ages should be able to as well. In this way he also brings soft images of love into the minds of his audience as opposed to harsh images of hate. “Brothers and sisters” implies equality, a sense of love, and unconditional compassion. Martin Luther King then leaves this idea to discuss other concepts, and temporarily puts away the image of holding hands. However, this image is returned to when King says at the end of the speech “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing”. This is the last statement that Martin Luther King makes before ending the speech with “Free at last!” repeated three times, which shows its importance to his message. King returns to this handholding image, however this time the subjects are no longer children, but “men” of different races and religions. This transition from children to grown men symbolizes development and growth and an over arching understanding between humans of all ages to love each other and demonstrate compassion. The conceptual helix that King uses subconsciously is more effective in encircling the minds of the audience with a certain message, instead of just mentioning it once because it ties the entire speech together.
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