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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What are examples of parallelism in the "I Have a Dream" speech?

Examples of parallelism in the "I Have a Speech" include the repetitions of "came as a" and "we refuse to believe" as well as "I have a dream" and "let freedom ring." These create a pleasing sense of rhythm and stir the emotions.

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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.

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Parallelism means repeating the same grammatical structure or word choice within a sentence or in consecutive sentences. It creates, like rhyme or alliteration, a pleasing sense of rhythm.

An example of parallelism in King's "I Have a Speech" occurs when he states that freedom from slavery

came as a great beacon light of hope

and then states that it

came as a joyous daybreak.

As we can see, King repeats the words "came as a" and then follows them with an image of light.

Another example of parallelism comes in paragraph five, in the repetition of the words "we refuse to believe" at the start of two consecutive sentences. In the next paragraph, King repeats "now is the time" three times to bring emphasis to this concept.

The most forceful use of parallelism occurs at the end of the speech, in the multiple repetitions of "I have a dream" and "let freedom ring." These statements bring the speech to a crescendo and lend a hypnotic, spell-binding quality to King's utterances as he rises to his climax. The words "let freedom ring" mimic the repeating ringing of a bell. At this point, King is using pure rhetoric, invoking the long-standing American cultural motif of freedom to create strong positive feelings for the civil rights cause in his audience.

King's goal is to bring people together in a sense of unity, purpose, and good feeling, so he plays openly to their emotions as the speech comes to a stirring end.

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Parallelism involves using similar structures for two or more parts of a sentence or sentences to create a comparison or pattern. One example in the "I Have a Dream Speech" is the four sentences that begin "one hundred years later" in the third paragraph to discuss all the ways in which African-Americans are still not free. Within one of these sentences that reads "One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination," King also uses parallelism. The phrases "manacles of segregation" and "chains of discrimination" are in parallel form, as they are three-word phrases with a noun, the word "of," and another noun.

Later, in the sixth paragraph, King begins several sentences with the parallel phrasing "now is the time to..." to speak about the agenda of the Civil Rights movement to end injustice and segregation. After he states "we can never turn back" later in the speech, he uses parallel constructions for several sentences that begin "We can never be satisfied as long as..." These sentences not only use repetition, but they also use parallel constructions, as the parts of the sentence that follow this phrase are all written in the present tense about an injustice that is currently occurring in the nation. Later, King ends the speech with several parallel sentences that begin famously with "I have a dream that..." These sentences also use repetition and are all written with the same structure, as they contain the future tense and use of words such as "will," "will be," or "shall" to express a hope for something that will happen in the near future. 

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There are a number of examples of parallelism in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. When examining a piece of literature for parallelism one looks for words or phrases that contain a similar arrangement or word pattern. These literary devices emphasize the structure and importance of the ideas presented.

In the first paragraph of the speech, Dr. King begins with the phrase “Five score years ago.” He then includes the phrase “one hundred years later” followed by the plight of the “Negros” as he continues the paragraph. Many of the sentences begin with this phrase thus drawing the reader and listener to understand that he is emphasizing the fact that even one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation living conditions for African Americans were still not based in equality and tolerance.

As the speech moves on he speaks of the “promissory note” that the Founding Fathers signed ensuring rights for all Americans. He parallels those words along with the words “check” and “insufficient funds” keeping with the monetary references.

Another example includes the phrases “we will not be satisfied” and “we will never be satisfied.” He uses those phrases to emphasize that the fight for Civil Rights will continue until acceptable conditions are established.

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