Parallelism is a literary and rhetorical technique in which a writer or speaker repeats and balances elements of grammar and meaning across sentences. Martin Luther King Jr. packs his “I Have a Dream” speech with parallel elements, which serve as points of emphasis, keys for memory, and spurs to his audience’s emotions. Let’s look at a few examples.
In King’s third paragraph, he repeats the phrase “one hundred years later” four times, each of which is followed by a statement about how African Americans are not yet free and are still oppressed. A few paragraphs later, he does something similar with the phrase “now is the time,” using it to create parallel sentences that express his desire for justice. Later, he parallels two short sentences, “We cannot walk alone” and “We cannot turn back.” These two bookend a line about how King wants people to walk: together and straight ahead. The effect of such parallelism is powerful and memorable.
Just one paragraph later, King again closely parallels a phrase about never being satisfied with the way things stand until justice is served. He then tells his audience “go back,” using the phrase several times, each followed by a different state or situation. They are to “go back” and work for change. He then enters into the most famous part of his speech as he repeats “I have a dream” nine times. Each of these parallel phrases introduces a statement about how this nation should be and hopefully will be one day. Again, the parallelism makes this part of the speech especially rhetorically strong and inspiring.
King doesn’t end there, though. He soon introduces more parallel sentences using the phrases “with this faith” and “let freedom ring.” In so doing, he creates a chorus of sorts that his audience is stimulated to recite with him, allowing the words to sink deeply into their hearts and minds. Indeed, King’s use of parallelism is one of the reasons why his speech stands as one of the finest of all times.