Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most often studied, cited, and referenced speeches in American history. While it’s true that some of its appeal is derived from the context of its creation and delivery (the 1963 civil rights watershed moment called the March on Washington), its power is chiefly due to the effective use of the persuasive and rhetorical techniques that we all studied in high school.
In reading the text of King’s speech, it doesn’t take long to uncover several of those techniques. Let’s look at the second paragraph.
Transfer is used to link the speaker’s cause with something else, usually something that is well respected and accepted. If it works, some of that respect and acceptance is “transferred” to the speaker’s cause.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Listeners knew that King was referring to Abraham Lincoln, a president who is now revered as possibly the greatest American leader. By mentioning Lincoln, King sought to align the civil rights cause with Lincoln’s reputation, which would give it a legitimacy that some Americans were not yet willing to recognize. Respect and acceptance is transferred from Lincoln to the civil rights movement.
Technique: Emotive words
Emotive words are words used to create an emotional response from the reader. This usually involves taking a simple idea and phrasing it with words that will sway the readers’ perception. The following line does this well.
This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.
King could have said this instead: The Emancipation Proclamation gave hope to enslaved negroes. By using the italicized words, King elicits a stronger, emotion-based response from the reader.
Persuasive Technique: Figurative language (more specifically, metaphor and symbol).
The third and final sentence of the paragraph is:
It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
This persuasive technique is also a common rhetorical device. We call it persuasive here because its function is to convince listeners to agree with the speaker.
Speakers and writers create metaphors and symbols to help define their ideas. By telling what something is by comparing it to something else, they shape the listener’s perception of their message. The words “joyous daybreak” and “long night” are figurative terms, they are not literally true. The slaves did not suffer for just one long night, it was really many thousands of nights. And their freedom wasn’t really a “daybreak,” it was a legal right conferred upon them. But by using these metaphors, King imparts a greater emotional power to the idea that Lincoln freed the slaves from one kind of tyranny, although, as evidenced by the marchers protests, not all kinds of tyranny.
Near the end of the speech, King’s tone changes a bit. He knows that many Americans are not yet accepting of minorities as their equals.
And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
The fear King is stoking here is the fear of civil unrest. While he is not directly encouraging violent protest (in fact in directly argues against it in a subsequent paragraph), he knows that many Americans have been dismayed by the scenes they have witnessed on television, as protesters have been attacked and riots have occurred. He is appealing to their fear of further violence and protest (note that the violence was almost always committed by whites against the protesters, not the other way around).
As you can see, there is a lot going on in this speech. King also uses other techniques, such as repetition, parallel structure, hyperbole, slogan, etc.
We should also note that this speech is exceptional because of King’s oratorical skills. He can deliver a speech with charisma and power. If you haven’t actually seen and heard the speech yourself, watch it on YouTube (or wherever). There’s no better speech anywhere.