Explain how metaphors and repetitions of words are used in Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

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mscw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The "I Have a Dream" speech, by Martin Luther King Jr, is one of the most famous orations of all time. Its hopeful tone cries out to its audience to pursue King's "dream" of a racially just America which is built on cooperation between all people. King uses figurative language to describe the deplorable injustices suffered by African Americans and his dreams for a bright and just future for all Americans. 

In the opening paragraph of the speech, Martin Luther King Jr lamented the irony that in 1963, one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the United States,

... the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

The imagery of slaves "crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination" reminds the audience that despite an end to slavery, African Americans suffer innumerable injustices on a daily basis. By comparing racial segregation on public transport and in schools with the physical bonds of slavery, Martin Luther King Jr is making clear his belief that the spirit of the Emancipation Declaration has not been carried out.    

By referring to the "vast ocean of material prosperity" of the white

American nation, King implores the listener to see injustice in the life of the African American person who sits "on a lonely island of prosperity...in the corners of American society and...an exile in his own land". King's attendance at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where this speech was delivered to more than two hundred thousand demonstrators, provides evidence of community support for change.

Indeed, Martin Luther King is adamant that the time had come for change in America, and that demonstrators would neither rest nor be satisfied until real change occurred. He used the image of an "autumn of freedom and equality" as relief from "This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent".

In his statement,

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends

Martin Luther King Jr implores his audience, who have suffered in their struggles for civil rights to approach their struggles for social and political justice with an enduring spirit of perseverance. To "wallow" in a deep valley of sadness and helplessness at the continuing injustices suffered by protesters and those supporting the cause will dull the mind's capacity to dream the

dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

King's reference to valleys and despair was not lost on the audience he addressed. As a pastor, he would frequently have referred to valleys as places of depression and despair, from which only the will and the power of God through prayer, through community action and through miracles, could save. Two of the most well-known of these Bible passages are Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 37:1-14.

This invitation to his listeners to rise from their despair is followed by the most famous section of the "I Have a Dream" speech, which outlines Martin Luther King's visions of a just society, where former enemies may sit together as brothers, and where all children will have the same rights and freedoms. 

The closing lines of the speech provide a poignant and lasting image for the listener. Freedom is a bell that echoes throughout the land, as in the famous patriotic song "My Country, 'tis of Thee". King calls for this "bell" to ring out across the nation, allowing all Americans to hear the sweet sounds of freedom and for African Americans to be "free at last".

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dr. King's use of repetitive words and phrases served to emphasize the points of his message, to engrain those those images in the minds of his listeners, and to amplify the impact of his arguments upon society. In using this technique, he was also drawing on the pattern of presentation used by African-American preachers addressing their congregations, bringing them to a climactic conclusion by building image upon image through the repetitions.

King used a metaphor to explain the historic basis of the civil rights movement, comparing the Declaration of Independence to a check or "promissory note."

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

Delivering encouragement to those who had suffered physical injury and mental harm during the conflicts endured by those involved in civil rights protests, King reinforced his message with repeated use of the phrase "go back."

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities,

In the same way, he developed the vision of the future that the civil rights march and workers hoped to attain through repeated use of the "I have a dream" phrase. His conclusion takes in the entire country and all its citizens with authority, with compassion, and with inspiration.


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"I Have a Dream" speech

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