Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the foreground with other people standing attentively in the background

"I Have a Dream" Speech

by Martin Luther King Jr.

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How do tone, vocabulary, and rhetorical patterns affect Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech?

Quick answer:

Dr. King employs a righteous and hopeful tone, a well-developed vocabulary and emotionally-connotative word choices, and repetition in order to emphasize in the injustice African Americans have always had to endure in the United States. His rhetoric also depends on his gravitas as a main leader of the civil rights movement.

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Tone describes the way an author, or, in this case, speaker, feels about their subject. In this speech, Dr. King is describing the oppression and economic slavery endured by African Americans despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves a hundred years prior.

He speaks with certainty and righteousness, secure in the knowledge that he is arguing against injustice. His tone, then, is certain and sure, as well as hopeful, as, at the end, he insists that black people will soon be "Free at last [...]." His vocabulary makes him sound educated, intelligent, and credible, which he was.

He uses a lot of figurative language, describing slavery with the metaphor of "the long night" and social inequality as "manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." He describes the Constitution as a "promissory note" that has turned into a "bad check" for African Americans. This figurative language and Dr. King's word choices elevate his speech and help both to convey and to elicit emotion.

Finally, he uses repetition as a rhetorical strategy to emphasize, for example, how long black Americans have had to endure injustice and inequality. In the second paragraph, he repeats the phrase "one hundred years later" four times. This emphasizes the fact that such inequality exists and calls attention to how long systemic racism has been reinforced by white Americans against black people.

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Analyze the way in which tone, vocabulary, and rhetorical patterns are used in the speech “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. uses a determined, hopeful tone to educate listeners about the problem of racial inequality and encourage a more equitable future. For instance, recall how he passionately states,

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 repeats the phrase “I have a dream” over and over again to give the listener hope and to show that he will not give up on a better future for the United States.

Another element that makes this speech so effective is King’s use of specific vocabulary. His use of advanced words demonstrates his intelligence and credibility and also helps craft vivid images in the minds of his listeners. For instance, note how he says that

the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.

Here, King is essentially saying that Black people are still marginalized. He could have simply stated that, but instead, he used descriptive words like languished and exile, which emphasize how painful the experience of social marginalization is for people of color.

King also used rhetorical patterns to emphasize the need for change. For example, note how he repeats the phrase “one hundred years” several times. The way he uses this phrase at the start of many sentences back to back emphasizes how long it has been and how little change has taken place.

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