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Martin Luther King Speech Critique

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most influential and admired speeches of the 20th century. King not only comments on controversial topics but eloquently expresses his opinion without being offensive. King’s mass appeal as a public speaker, civil rights activist, and human being is attributed to his unique way of empowering people through communication. Martin Luther King Jr. uses an audience-centred approach in his “I Have a Dream” speech because he effectively utilizes rhetorical devices and communication techniques to make his message comprehensible.

One effective rhetorical device that King uses to emphasize key points in his speech is metaphors. A few of King’s strongest metaphors are his references to prejudice: “the quicksands of racial injustice”, the “heat of oppression”, “the dark and desolate valleys of segregation”, and the “chains of discrimination.” King also depicts how unbearable inequality is by creating an image: “the sweltering summer of the negro’s discontent.” King uses symbols and metaphors to compare a specific term (such as “racial injustice”) to something the audience is more familiar with (such as the devouring characteristic of quicksand). He uses this technique to help his audience better understand his message and motives.

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Two other techniques King utilizes to make his speech coherent and discernable are anaphora and alliteration. Anaphora is important in the “I Have a Dream” because it emphasizes the main point of certain lines, and ultimately, the main points of the speech. Examples of anaphora include: “one hundred years later”, “we cannot be satisfied”, “let freedom ring”, and the ever-popular, “I have a Dream.” In addition, King’s use of alliteration helps to accentuate key phrases by grouping words that start with the same letter: “marvellous new militancy”, “dark and desolate”, “sweltering summer”, and “colour […] content […] character.”

Another way King keeps his audience and their goals in mind are by encouraging them to embrace the future. For instance, King motivates his people to take action by saying: “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” King further emphasizes the need for proactivity as he repeatedly says, “Now is the time.” Lastly, being a man of nonviolence, King wants to make sure that his audience does not misinterpret the message of his speech, so he says: “We must not satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of hatred.” Through this line, King reinforces the fact that he advocates passivity despite injustice.

Although King’s speech is targeted at a specific group of people, the speech still appeals to a diverse population. One way that King helps his speech to be universal is through his allusions to events in history. His speech is political, as his purpose is to empower his own people to fight for civil rights, in addition to, influencing the oppositionists to change their ways. King references the National anthem, the Constitution, and the Bible in his “I Have a Dream Speech”. In fact, King makes substantial points about the slow advancement of African American equality through his anaphora “one hundred years later”, which alludes to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation one hundred years prior to King’s speech.

King’s allusions to past events help to create common ground for both the black man and white man because both colours experienced American history in some form or another. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech deserves all of the recognition it gets because of the relevance and solidity of the content and potent stage presence of the speaker. King not only knows how to communicate his information to an audience of African Americans but can also accommodate an audience on a broader level. His use of rhetorical devices gives emotion to an already meaningful speech. It is obvious King uses an audience-centred approach to “I Have a Dream” because of the ways he makes the material easy to understand and captivating to see and hear.


  • Beebe, S. A., & Beebe, S. J. (2007). Public Speaking- An Audience Centered Approach (6th ed.).
  • Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing
  • Eidenmuller, M. E. (2007). Martin Luther King, Jr. – Beyond Vietnam- A Time to Break Silence. American Rhetoric. Retrieved September 27, 2007, from speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

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