Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200
Allusions are among the most important devices that King uses in his “I Have a Dream” speech. King predominantly alludes to the Bible and to the US founding documents. These allusions tie King’s speech to the cultural language of the protestors and connect their cause to a set of noble ideals. Instead of just demanding access to jobs and a fair minimum wage—although important issues and worthwhile in their own right—these demands are connected to the principles of justice and righteousness.
King draws on the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution throughout his speech. He uses the Emancipation Proclamation to highlight the backwardness of the current state of affairs. He claims that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the descendants of the freed slaves are not yet fully free. King connects the civil rights movement to ideas of patriotism through allusions to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This forms the basis for King’s suggestion that “if America is to be a great nation,” all of its citizens must be free.
King was a Christian minister, and he wove direct and indirect biblical messages into his “I Have a Dream” speech. Some of the statements in his speech are drawn almost verbatim from biblical verses. In one passage, King states, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”; this references Amos 5:24. In another passage, King remarks, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” which references Isaiah 40:4-5. Connecting the goals of the March to a divine plan created by a higher power is another way that King establishes the righteousness of the protestors’ demands.
King makes use of repetition to great effect in “I Have a Dream.” For example, he first repeats the phrase “one hundred years later” when discussing the state of Black Americans in the United States one century after the Emancipation Proclamation. He next repeats the phrase “now is the time” in order to emphasize the importance and urgency of establishing and protecting civil rights in the United States. He then repeats the phrase “We can never be satisfied,” driving home the point that the goal of the protestors is not to merely “blow off steam” but to change society.
The most iconic instance of repetition is King’s use of the phrase “I have a dream,” for which the speech is named. With each repetition of “I have a dream,” King describes an instance of what racial equality would look like in an ideal future. In the following passage, King repeats “let freedom ring,” a phrase which he borrows from an American patriotic song, to call for freedom across the United States. Taken as a whole, repetition is one of the primary methods by which King builds the emotional impact of his speech, rallying and inspiring the protestors to continue to fight for civil rights.
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
“I Have a Dream” incorporates Aristotle’s three essential rhetorical appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos. King’s speech appeals to logos—the structure and precision of his argument—by effectively making the claim that Black Americans are not free and that policy changes are needed to secure their rights. Ethos, or King’s credibility as a speaker, is largely established by his long-term and consistent involvement in civil rights protests across the South.
However, it is the pathos of “I Have a Dream”—its emotional resonance with the audience—that gives the speech its lasting power. King achieves pathos through powerful metaphors and images, through allusions that convey a strong cultural resonance with his audience, and through the impassioned repetition of key phrases closely tied to his message. Because of King’s masterful appeals to pathos, his speech resonated with his audience and continues to resonate with future generations.
The civil rights movement in the United States took place largely during the 1950s and 1960s. Its main purpose was to push American society, especially the federal government, to acknowledge and protect the rights of people of color and to develop programs to promote the equality of people of color through education and employment opportunities. It drew from the momentum established during Harry S. Truman’s administration, when the president took steps to fully desegregate the military. The civil rights movement sought to establish that same level of equality and freedom in all aspects of American life.
Prior to the March on Washington, the civil rights movement had several successful peaceful protests—boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and so on. These protests led to milestones such as the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first of its kind since Reconstruction.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was one of the biggest protests of the civil rights movement. The protest is credited with the eventual enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The march was initiated by A. Phillip Randolph, who garnered support from other civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to pressure the Kennedy administration to take greater action regarding civil rights. By the time that the march took place on August 28, 1963, there were several organizations involved in sponsoring the event and organizing the protestors, including the Negro American Labor Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (of which King was the leader), the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In April of 1963, King participated in the Birmingham Campaign, where he was incarcerated for continuing to protest despite a court injunction aimed to end protests. He wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” during his incarceration. During this campaign, hundreds of protestors were arrested and subdued by force. Images of children and adult protestors being attacked by police dogs, blasted by fire hoses, and beaten by police officers sparked outrage worldwide and brought international attention to the issue of segregation in the United States. These events were no doubt still on Americans’ minds during the March on Washington. In “I Have a Dream,” King likely nods to the Birmingham campaign when describing the difficulties the protestors have faced in the past.
The purpose of the march was to protect the right to vote for all people, especially people of color, to end discrimination in employment practices, and to provide a means for people in poverty to become financially stable. Over 250,000 people showed up to protest on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is estimated that around 75% of the attendees were people of color, most of them Black. Many of the goals of the march were directly addressed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which virtually eliminated the use of discriminatory literacy tests to prevent Black Americans from voting in the South, barred discrimination in employment and labor unions, and banned segregation in public spaces.