What Rhetorical Elements Make The Speech Effective?

What are the rhetorical or figurative devices used in Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, "I Have a Dream"?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The repetition is something that makes Dr. King's speech extremely powerful and effective.  Repetition as a rhetorical device helps to bring home several ideas.  Initially, the repeating of "I Have a Dream" helps to bring to light the idea that what is in King's mind is not reality.  This idea of "a dream" helped to awaken many Americans to the reality that Civil Rights violations are not localized and isolated incidents.  Rather, they are expressions of a state of being that is contrary to American History and instants that go against the fundamental nature of the nation.  These conditions are brought out in Dr. King's repeating of "I have a dream."  In each of its uses, the phrase evokes a vision of America that is contrary to its reality.  The repetition technique expertly shows how different American reality is from American history.  It also shows how persuasive what can be is from what is.  In this, Dr. King's speech acquires a quality that is of the moment, but also one that is transcendent of it and outside of it.

epollock | Student

In describing America’s treatment of blacks, King could easily have stated the idea in a straightforward way, simply saying that the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence have not been granted to blacks. But, the nature of King’s argument is to use words to give hope to the people fighting for their rights, and to inspire them to continue in the battle. To do this, King uses vivid language throughout. So, in the second and third paragraphs, he uses vivid metaphor of checks and promissory notes to get his point across. The metaphor is easily understood and takes the abstract idea of “inalienable rights” and puts it into concrete terms. The metaphor is a powerful one, especially when King says that America has given blacks a bad check stamped “insufficient funds.”This single image succinctly summarizes more than 200 years of injustice.

King says the black man has the same dream and draws on language from the Emancipation Proclamation to reinforce his audience’s emotional resolve to continue in their quest for equal rights. By this analogyand through such techniques as incorporating the lyrics of “MyCountry ‘Tis of Thee” (para.15) into his argument, King simply, butpowerfully, makes his points.

King reminds his audience that the Civil Rights Movement puts into action basic ideas contained in the Constitution. King reaffirms minority rights as a way of renewing aspirations put forward by America’s founding fathers:

“I say to you today myfriends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and liveout the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be selfevident,that all men are created equal’“ (para.11).

By connectingthe present to the past, King shows that the struggle of blacks is akinto other great struggles of American history, such as our struggle tobe free of Great Britain, and the expression of this ideal in theDeclaration of Independence.

By using language from the Proclamation, he emphasizes the irony that a hundred years had passed with so little freedom for blacks. His listeners recognize the reference he is making, and can readily respond to King’s words with renewed vigor to continue the struggle for equality.

King uses figurative language and parallelism that echoes the Bible to enhance the effectiveness of his speech. King instinctively chooses the proper phrases to ignite firein his listeners. He uses language that echoes the Bible, the holiest of books to a minister (which King was), to show how important the cause is and to reinforce his audience’s emotional resolve with an eloquent, noble, and impassioned plea that America might fulfill its original promise of freedom and equality to all of its citizens.

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