"I Have a Dream" Speech Questions and Answers
by Martin Luther King Jr.

"I Have a Dream" Speech book cover
Start Your Free Trial

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

Expert Answers info

Stephen Holliday eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2011

write859 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Business

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," delivered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963—one of the most (if not the most) powerful statements on the urgency of equality and civil rights for Black Americans—is in part a product of King's background as a Baptist minister, in which powerful rhetoric and figurative language (such as allusion) plays a role in every sermon. The speech is grounded in the sermon tradition, with its rich texture of imagery, metaphor, allusion, and passion.

King begins his allusive pattern in the second paragraph of the speech:

Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

With his use of five score years ago, King is alluding to the Gettysburg Address, given by Abraham Lincoln to commemorate the cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863, a short speech that is often considered the speech that began to make America whole again during the Civil War, even though the war had two more years to run. The power of the allusion rests with its connection to Lincoln, esteemed by most of his listeners, and its link to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which gave Black Americans their freedom but not their equality. Without the Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln would not have had the support ot issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a brilliant extended metaphor, based on his allusion to a common element of everyday life—a promissory note—King creates an image that most of his listeners could easily understand:

In a sense, we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check....It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note [that is, the Declaration of Independence] insofar as her citizens of color are concerned....a check which has come back "insufficient funds."

This allusion to a commonplace economic transaction—a promissory note and its payment—serves to objectify the abstraction of inequality, and there are few people listening or reading the speech who have not had a check come back from a bank marked "NSF" (insufficient funds).

In the "I have a dream" section of the speech, King uses the powerful image of bells (freedom) ringing, another appeal to the senses, when he says:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let Freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

These geographical allusions are not simply to places his audience may be familiar with—they are locations in which vestiges of the Confederacy still exist. The main feature of Stone Mountain Park is the Confederate Memorial Carving, which depicts the images of General Stonewall Jackson, one of the Confederacy's most effective generals; Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Virginia, the main army in the eastern theater of war; and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.

No listener or reader would have missed the import King's call for freedom to ring from this place. When King mentions Lookout Mountain, he alludes to an area of horrendous battles during the Civil War in which thousands on both sides were killed and wounded. There are few more powerful allusions that would have recalled to the minds of his listeners the horrors of the Civil War.

Throughout the speech, King's allusions serve to create concrete images that allow abstractions to become visceral; rather than referring to the Civil War, for example, King alludes to places, very familiar to his audience, that bring the horrors of the Civil War to life. Objectifying abstractions with figurative language helps make those abstractions no longer abstract.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

booboosmoosh eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2003

write4,119 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

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.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial