What are some of the literary and rhetorical devices used in the "I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.?  

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most famous pieces of oratory in American history. Particularly famous is the section in which King proclaims his dreams:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

In this brief selection from the famous passage, King uses a variety of literary and rhetorical devices, including the following:

  • Anaphora, or repeating a word or phrase at the beginnings of successive sentences or clauses, as in the repetition of “I have a dream . . .” here.
  • Balanced or parallel phrasing, as in “rise up and live out” or “the sons of . . .” and “the sons of . . . .” or “the color of their skin” and “the content of their character.”
  • Vivid imagery, as in the reference to the “red hills of Georgia.”
  • Alliteration, or the repetition of similar-sounding consonant sounds, as in “the content of their character.”
  • Metaphors, or implied comparisons, as in the reference to “the table of brotherhood” (emphasis added) and in the references to heat and to an oasis.
  • Allusions, as in the open quotation here from the Declaration of Independence.

King uses many other devices besides these in his speech, but the devices listed above help add emphasis and power to one of the most powerful passages in any speech ever given in the U. S.





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"I Have a Dream" speech

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