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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Toward what audience does MLK direct his "I Have a Dream" speech, and how does he appeal to this audience with specific quotes or examples?

Quick answer:

The direct audience of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was the audience who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as part of the March on Washington, but the message of the speech is still pertinent to American audiences today.

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In a very practical sense, the audience consisted of those who gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in 1963 in an effort to support the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself was comprised of people who supported civil rights legislation that President Kennedy had introduced a couple of months prior. Thus, the audience was full of people who supported a new America, one which fully carried out the promises of the Declaration of Independence and and Emancipation Proclamation.

But in a broader sense, the audience of his speech is anyone who seeks to establish equality for the oppressed in America. King's speech focuses heavily on the civil injustices that African Americans faced then, yet many would argue that these same issues still exist in American society. The speech's words and audience have remained timeless. King instructs his audience in how to conduct their protests, "on the high plane of dignity and discipline." He reminds them that they can never be satisfied as long as racial injustices exist in locations throughout the country. And he encourages those who have arrived "out of great trials and tribulation" to continue the hard work necessary to create needed changes.

King appeals to his audience on many levels, but one method that he uses toward the end is by making it personal to almost any listener. No matter where the audience is located, they can apply King's vision to their own circumstances:

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside. Let freedom ring...

He also appeals to his audience through the repetition of key phrases and through rhetorical strategies by building logos. Both are key in the quote below:

But one hundred years later, 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 in exile in his own land.

Because of King's compelling rhetoric, the speech's core message extends to an audience beyond those to whom he originally delivered this speech.

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King's "I Have a Dream Speech" is split into three sections. In the first part, he primarily addresses his white audience members. In the second part, he speaks directly to the black community. In the third part, he addresses both races equally. The speech shows he is conscious that there are two Americas, one comprised of whites and one of blacks. These groups, he explains, have had very different experiences.

In the first part, he appeals to white audiences, stating that one hundred years after gaining freedom, blacks still "languish" in terms of economic equality and social justice. He says that this situation is wrong and asks whites to make good on their promise to fully include blacks in society. He says that whites keep writing blacks a check that comes back marked "insufficient funds." What he means is that whites keep promising but ultimately denying blacks the opportunities that whites have. As King says,

One hundred years later the Negro is still . . . in exile in his own land.

He then turns to his black audience and addresses them directly, appealing to them to not hate whites. He says whites and blacks are linked together. He says that whites "have come to realize that their freedom is . . . bound to our freedom."

He tells blacks that they have to work in a reasonable way for change. However, that change must come now—they cannot wait any longer.

Finally, when he describes his vision, he addresses both blacks and whites evenly, evoking a land where race no long is the defining factor in people's lives. He appeals to the patriotism of all Americans, black and white, by saying,

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning. "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty."

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Martin Luther King, Jr. directs his "I Have a Dream Speech," delivered in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, to the entire nation, but his use of "we" referred to the nearly 250,000 people gathered at the capitol for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech was intended to express their support for the civil rights legislation proposed in June of 1963 by President Kennedy. He also addresses the nation as a whole.

At the beginning of his speech, King says, "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check." His reference is to the promises of the "Emancipation Proclamation" of 1863, a full century earlier, and to the unfulfilled promises of the "Declaration of Independence" for African-Americans. He appeals to his audience by referring to seminal events in American history to suggest that this march, and its call for civil rights, is a continuation of these critical events that shaped the destiny of the United States. His words have echoes of those of Lincoln. For example, "Five score years ago" is similar to Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago" in the "Gettysburg Address." King's words also recall those of Jefferson: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

King also uses the traditional African-American preaching technique of voice merging, or adapting the words of religious leaders in the past. When King says, "We can never be satisfied," and uses a series of examples of the way in which African-Americans are not equal, including police brutality and the lack of the vote, he is merging his voice with that of Amos, the Old Testament preacher who said "Let justice roll down like waters." Amos's prophetic voice merges with the prophetic voice of King in an example of voice merging. In addition, King's famous anaphora (use of repetition) at the end of the speech, which repeats the phrase "I have a dream," calls on the words of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Isaiah referred to the valleys exalted, mountains laid low, which are words echoed in King's words: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain."  This is another example of voice merging. 

Therefore, King's speech first establishes political authority by calling on Jefferson and Lincoln, and then moves to religious authority and the use of a prophetic voice. At the end of the speech, King again uses political authority by calling on references to "My Country 'tis of Thee," also known as "America." His use of anaphora with the repetition of "let freedom ring" in the states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi (then known as one of the worst states with regard to civil rights) is a powerful reminder that freedom does not exist in these states. 

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