Please identify several allusions in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., was not just a Civil Rights activist; he was also a Baptist minister, and talented writer and public speaker.

Even so many years after his death, the words in his "I Have a Dream" speech resonate with power and emotion. Not unusual for any parent, King had a desire to make the world a better place not only for his children, and but also for all people treated with inequality—so they might become members of the United States citizenry that could enjoy the rights promised with the words of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal."

An allusion is a figure of speech used to make one's writing more impactful by drawing a comparison with a well-known or famous person, place, piece of art, literature, etc.

The first allusion that may be noticed is King's introduction to his speech. He begins...

Five score years ago...

This is an allusion that mimics the language used by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. That speech began...

Four score and seven years ago...

While those hearing Lincoln's speech as he delivered it were shocked that it was only about three minutes in length, his brilliance is evidenced by the word economy he used, and the impactful message he delivered without the need to speak as his predecessor had: for two hours. The impact came from the content of his prepared words. He alluded to the men who fought for freedom from England in the American colonies, and likened the Civil War as a similar struggle—for the freedom of all men, regardless of their color.

King likened the dedication necessary for Civil Rights Movement forge ahead, just like Lincoln's push to endure and march forward to achieve liberty for all, the beginnings of which were set forth in Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Another allusion speaks directly to the Declaration of Independence, using words from that document—a piece of writing that has become the iconic for freedom's cry for equality, stating...

...the architects of our republic […] were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

...all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Another allusion King uses, "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," is based on the Old Testament scripture found in Amos 5:25:

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Another scriptural allusion is found in...

...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...

This is based upon Isaiah 40:4, using the King James' version.

Read the study guide:
"I Have a Dream" speech

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