King’s Vision

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

The passage in which King reiterates “I have a dream” should be understood in the overall context of the talk. Although King started by reading from his prepared text, he disregarded this text about halfway through the speech and incorporated a theme he had used in some previous speeches: “I...

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The passage in which King reiterates “I have a dream” should be understood in the overall context of the talk. Although King started by reading from his prepared text, he disregarded this text about halfway through the speech and incorporated a theme he had used in some previous speeches: “I have a dream.” This theme introduced into the speech two of the main tenets of the SCLC: interracial cooperation and social equality. King’s eloquent vision of a future without racial divisions captured the emotions of many viewers and, later, readers of the speech. In fact, the emotional power of that section of King’s remarks sometimes blurs the memory of other, equally important aspects of his speech.

King’s speech has become widely known as a masterpiece of rhetoric and argumentation. One rhetorical device that King used to great effect is repetition. The most obvious example is the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” to detail different aspects of King’s vision of racial harmony, but there are other, equally important examples. In the opening section of the speech, King reiterated the phrase “one hundred years later” to emphasize that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation (issued in 1863), African Americans still had not achieved equality. Immediately after the “I have a dream” section, King repeated the phrase that it is “with this faith” in his dream that he and other people could hope to transform American society. These examples demonstrate King’s consciousness of the use of rhetoric to produce emotional impact.

Perhaps one of the most important rhetorical strategies of King’s speech is his reference to the principles voiced by the Founding Fathers in his appeal for racial equality. This strategy was especially important in light of the fact that the government (including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department) was concerned that the Civil Rights movement might discredit the United States abroad. Hence, it was perceptive of King to imply in the speech that he was not undermining the United States but asking the country to do justice to the principles that were asserted to be the bedrock of the U.S. political and societal character. King stated, for example, that his dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream,” and that he dreamed of a day when Americans “will be able to sing with new meaning ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” King then immediately used the words of that song to delineate the different areas of the country where he hoped the United States would soon “let freedom ring” for all its citizens. He referred to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as being a “promissory note” to all citizens, which those at the march now were claiming as their inheritance. The speech gained power from King’s stressing that he was asking the United States to live up to its principles and thus to fulfill the greatness of its pronounced creed.

King’s speech became not only one of the most publicized events of the Civil Rights movement but also one of the most highly regarded speeches in U.S. history. Although much of the acclaim rests on the emotionally powerful “I have a dream” section of the speech, the entire speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric and argument. One of the most essential aspects of the speech was at the end, when King stated that on the day “when we let freedom ring” the United States will only be speeding up the day—not arriving at it—when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” This stands as the lingering, haunting challenge of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington.

The Speech

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

King’s remarks were the keynote address of the rally and capped off a day of speeches and musical presentations. The large crowd was charged with emotion and enthusiasm as King took the podium. The three major television networks were to provide live television coverage of the speech, so King had carefully prepared a formal text. In an interview a few months after giving the speech, he recalled he was so moved by the emotion of the crowd spread out before him on that August afternoon in the nation’s capital that he abandoned the prepared text and began to preach from the heart, using the phrase, “I have a dream.” He had previously used this phrase in speeches given at mass meetings in Birmingham, Alabama, in April and in Detroit in June, 1963. In one of the speech’s most memorable passages, King said, “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.” He drew inspiration from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, mixing his “I have a dream” phrase with phrases from the Bible. After speaking a few sentences from his prepared conclusion, he picked up on a new theme, reciting the first stanza of “My Country, Tis of Thee” and ending with the line “from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” King spoke forcefully to make himself heard over the growing roar of the crowd. His conclusion powerfully summarized his dream for the United States and his hope for the future. He looked forward to a day “when all God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last.’”

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