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Commentary on “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King

“I Have a Dream” is a public speech delivered by Martin Luther King, a prominent figure in American History, in which he calls for racial equality. Throughout his speech, Martin Luther King inspires and motivates his audience to create a social movement to better the standards of living for black people in America.

The transcript deals with the themes of equality and freedom by using a variety of literary techniques. According to Martin Luther King, social exclusion of the “Negro” is holding America from genuinely being “great.” He encourages those who are fighting for equality and freedom from the constraints of society to continue their struggle for the betterment of the entire black society. He seems to say that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, but it must be demanded by the oppressed.

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The theme of undying hope is also discussed as Martin Luther King encourages his viewers to be persistent in whatever they do. The reader’s direct address helps the orator emotionally connect with the reader to have a more significant impact on the audience. The speech begins with a direct address to provide an emotional connection and thereby enhance the motivational effect of the speech. The possessive pronoun “my” in the noun phrase “my friends” unites Martin Luther King with his audience and so can strengthen the impact of his inspirational speech.

The theme of hope is discussed through the repetition of adverbs. The adverb “still” in the simple declarative sentence “I still have a dream” is used to motivate the audience and tell them there still is hope. That change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but it comes through continuous struggle. The abstract noun “dream” is repeated to symbolize undying hope and belief. Dreams connote fantasies, genuine emotions and desires, and so in this context, they can connote a spirit of enduring optimism. Martin Luther King’s dreams are “deeply rooted in the American dream,” showing how he hopes for his dream of equality to be integrated into the American dream.

The theme of dreams is discussed continuously to emphasize that social segregation is the one thing stopping America from genuinely being “great.” There is a parallel structure for eight consecutive paragraphs that emphasize Martin Luther King’s critical points and build up the rhetorical effect. The anaphora “I have a dream” reinforces his ideas and makes the speech more persuasive and inspirational as it connects with the audience. The repeated noun phrase “one day” shows how Martin Luther King has self-belief in his dreams which is inspirational as it indirectly tells the audience never to give up.

The dynamic-verb phrase “rise and live out” symbolizes a dream becoming a reality. The repetitive use of the possessive pronoun “we” reinforces his dream of unity as he directly involves his audience. The idea of unity is further developed by involving the men and women of different states. Martin Luther King uses patterning to juxtapose the rich with the poor in the subordinate clause “sons of former slaves and former slaveowners.” He believes that both parties can live in unison and lead much better lives and contribute to America’s progress.

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The metaphor “table of brotherhood” symbolizes harmony, agreement and acceptance for Martin Luther King believe that one should not be judged by the colour of his skin but by the quality of his character. The abstract noun “brotherhood” signifies a point where skin colour, religion, nationality and ethnicity have been disregarded. The theme of perseverance is shown by how Martin Luther King repeatedly uses adverbs to reinforce his points. He challenges the ethos of white Americans who neglect and discriminate against other humans.

The reiteration of the adverb “even” clearly depicts how firstly he wants equality and everyone to be considered equal and secondly how he believes that if we were to collaborate to eradicate this disease of discrimination, dreams of the betterment of society could become realities. Martin Luther King believes in this idea of persistence and perseverance so much that he relates his speech to a corrupt and biased state – Mississippi, a “desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression”.

The dynamic verb “sweltering” connotes a very negative situation that people have reached regarding their attitudes, assumptions and values. The metaphor “heat of injustice and oppression” injects pathos into the current behaviour of humans and makes the speech more inspirational as it pushes for changes in social norms and expectations. The noun “transformation” has positive connotations and represents an “oasis of freedom and justice” that is just around the corner if people fight for their rights. The abstract noun “oasis” symbolizes a new beginning – a pleasant change, or rather, development.

The involvement of various stakeholders creates a more substantial emotional impact. The involvement of “little children” as a group of people discriminated against has a substantial emotional impact as it truly reflects how innocent people are being mistreated. The most basic of human rights are stolen from them. The premodifier “little” shows innocence, and so this example is used to open the eyes of the prejudice to the fact that no one man is of more value than another.

The one-word single-sentence paragraph builds up the pace and emotional intensity. The anaphora “I have a dream today” makes up the paragraph meant to motivate people to make themselves part of the change. The abstract noun “today” is used to make the audience believe that there will be no further delay in the search for the most basic human right – equality and freedom. This single sentence paragraph is repeated to emphasize Martin Luther King’s main points and reinforce his ideas.

Martin Luther King directly criticizes the rich and therefore powerful to convey to the audience that one should not be afraid of being the change they wish to see in the world. He metaphorically declares that the lips of Alabama’s governor “are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification”. The metaphoric comparison to a filthy and dirty dog in the dynamic verb “dripping” is used to implicitly insult those who discriminate against the poor and helpless for they can only be related to animals.

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The vision of unity is portrayed through the description of a perfect, harmonic setting. The idyllic transformation is described as “a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls…and walk together as sisters and brothers”. He aims to say that everyone is simply a book of blood; when we’re opened, we are all red. No human race is superior or inferior; no religious faith is superior or inferior. All stereotypical judgments are wrong. The imagery is further detailed when Martin Luther King declares that “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain should be made low…”.

The repetition of the determiner “every” accentuates the point that with determination in the heart, total and perfect unity and acceptance are very possible. Martin Luther King uses powerful metaphors to let the audience feel the emotion and move them sentimentally. The metaphor “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” is very emotive and encourages the audience to still believe and continue to believe that there still is hope for a better future. It is almost as if he embodies the stone itself.

Martin Luther King utilizes complex chiasmus to reinforce his themes of gratitude and acceptance. The chiasmus “the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth” is an attempt to correct the selfish attitude and mindset people have in which they feel free to play the role of God. He relates life to a “web” and says that the destructive nature of humans will only destroy them in the long term. He metaphorically relates man to a “strand” in the web of life juxtaposing the idea of how people overestimate their rights and in reality, are simply small cogs in a great machine. The stealing of rights should be treated as a criminal offence.

The main clause “our god is also your god” refers to a divine being that rules over one and all – Jesus – whom he believes has the power to unite. The direct address of the reader is further seen when Martin Luther King lists rhetorical questions. The listing of rhetorical questions such as “What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horse tamed?” makes the reader reflect on his/her experiences and realize that change is urgently needed for the betterment of everyone in society. Additional antagonistic pairs such as “Where will the eagle be?” are responded to by the repeated exclamatory “Gone!”.

The dynamic verb “gone: symbolizes the permanent loss of humanity. The simple sentence “The end of living and the beginning of survival” connotes that life will become worthless in the end and people will simply live to survive, not live to enjoy. People will become even more selfish and careless as time goes by if a remedy to this disease is not found. Examples related to family members are quoted to provide an emotional incentive to follow his ideology. The simile “we love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat” relates the newborn to humans and the heartbeat to the planet as he requests the world to respect it by doing what is morally correct and just. Both the newborn and the mother are symbols of innocence and vulnerability and Martin Luther King wants humanity to respect these ever-important symbols.

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The speech ends with a list of chiasmus to emphasize certain points. The imperative “care for it as we have cared for it[earth])” shows Martin Luther King to be begging for a change in the attitudes and values of humanity. He wants people to value what they have, rather than destroy and waste it. He lists solutions to make society a better place where everyone is accepted. He uses short, simple sentences to build up the pace to end his speech on a high note to motivate his audience of two hundred and fifty thousand black Americans. He connotes the idea that a person however learned and qualified in his life’s work in whom gratitude is absent, is devoid of that beauty of character which makes personality fragrant.

He wants people to express their gratitude not by uttering words but to live by them. His last words “We are brothers after all” symbolizes peace, freedom and contentment with each other and society as a whole – something he repeatedly dreams of. Martin Luther King’s love for the earth and respect for all is evident especially as he concludes his speech as he attempts to convince and motivate his audience to take care of the planet and its inhabitants. The simple declarative “This earth is precious to us” leaves no room for confusion. The pronoun “us” fuses and amalgamates his audience into one single, strong force. He believes that we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Instead of competing against one another, we should work with each other to achieve common goals for the betterment of mankind.

By giving short, simple sentences packed with powerful adjectives and dynamic verbs, the audience begins to feel the emotion. The technique of isocolon is also present which allows the speech to flow in a more clear and organized matter showing determination. It moves the audience sentimentally. Repetition accentuates points the speaker wants the audience to remember. He repeats declarative and exclamatory over and over again as an appeal to pathos, or emotions. His pathos during this speech is what creates such excitement and belief in the audience and is what makes him such an influential and charismatic figure.

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Commentary on "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from