Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the foreground with other people standing attentively in the background

"I Have a Dream" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.
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Analyze the way in which tone, vocabulary, and rhetorical patterns are used in the formal speech " I have a dream..." by Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King employs a righteous and hopeful tone, a well-developed vocabulary and emotionally-connotative word choices, and repetition in order to emphasize in the injustice African Americans have always had to endure in the United States. His rhetoric also depends on his gravitas as a main leader of the civil rights movement.

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Tone describes the way an author, or, in this case, speaker, feels about their subject. In this speech, Dr. King is describing the oppression and economic slavery endured by African Americans despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves a hundred years prior.

He speaks with certainty and righteousness, secure in the knowledge that he is arguing against injustice. His tone, then, is certain and sure, as well as hopeful, as, at the end, he insists that black people will soon be "Free at last [...]." His vocabulary makes him sound educated, intelligent, and credible, which he was.

He uses a lot of figurative language, describing slavery with the metaphor of "the long night" and social inequality as "manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." He describes the Constitution as a "promissory note" that has turned into a "bad check" for African Americans. This figurative language and Dr. King's word choices elevate his speech and help both to convey and to elicit emotion.

Finally, he uses repetition as a rhetorical strategy to emphasize, for example, how long black Americans have had to endure injustice and inequality. In the second paragraph, he repeats the phrase "one hundred years later" four times. This emphasizes the fact that such inequality exists and calls attention to how long systemic racism has been reinforced by white Americans against black people.

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