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...
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