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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Can you state a couple of antitheses from the "I Have a Dream" speech?

Quick answer:

An example of antithesis in the "I Have a Dream" speech is,

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.

Lines like this compare the reality of the present with an aspirational hope for a better future.

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In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. makes many uses of antithesis to compare the reality of the current situation facing the Black community to what he dreams the situation could ultimately be. His use of antithesis incorporates comparing the present to the future of his dreams and also comparing the present to the past. He emphasizes the word “Now” to underscore the sense of "urgency" he feels America needs to take to address current injustices. By comparing the present to both the past and the future, he leverages antithesis because the America today for the Black community is the antithesis of the America that was promised historically.

For instance, he starts the speech by mentioning the founding fathers and their dream of freedom for all Americans. He points out that we have fallen short, dramatically short, of realizing that dream for Black Americans, saying:

“the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Thus, despite the abolition of the slavery that put physical manacles on people, Black people are still shackled by other forms of manacles, which Martin Luther King Jr. emphasizes through this use of antithesis, as manacles—although no longer physical—are the antithesis of true freedom.

He also compares the American dream to a financial asset and financial institution holding those assets. If the American dream of freedom for all implies that freedom and the pursuit of wealth are assets each person is entitled to, like a “promissory note,” he says, then “America has defaulted on this promissory note” for the Black community. He continues the metaphor using antitheses that the system is a "bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" America, the land of opportunity and riches for some people, is "bankrupt" for others. He notes that “the great vaults of opportunity” are empty when it comes to the Black community.

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Antithesis is the juxtaposition of opposites. It is a form of rhetoric or persuasion that King uses to great effect to contrast the reality of the plight of Black people in America to the promise of the American Dream. A famous example is his statement that:

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.

The antithesis in the above is between what is superficial (skin tone) and what has real value (a person's character). This use of antithesis speaks to people's deepest desire to be judged as who they really are, not by a shallow standard. A person has no control over the skin color they are born with, but they can control their character by choosing to behave in a honorable way.

In a second example, King uses antithesis in the following:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

The image of Mississippi as a dry desert is the antithesis of the oasis that King dreams it will become in the future. Further, King places the racism of Mississippi in its current form against the freedom it will offer in King's dream of a new America.

Finally, King writes that:

One day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

White and Black children are an antitheses that King puts together in an image that would have been radical in a place just beginning to emerge from racial segregation, like Alabama.

It is important that, in the last two examples, King uses imagery, description that uses any of the five senses, because this creates vivid and persuasive images in our minds.

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An antithesis can be illustrated by juxtaposing two arguments which oppose each other. It can also be illustrated by a contrast of oppositional ideas such as "Give me liberty or give me death" (Patrick Henry, 1775). In describing the current state of inequality, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, King writes:

One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Island and ocean are not necessarily opposites but they are contrasting ideas. The significant antithesis in this sentence is the combination of poverty and prosperity.

King also uses imagery to convey the current plight of African-Americans as compared to a hopeful future. In these next two lines, darkness is the antithesis of the sun; and the quick sands are indicative of a hopeless sinking situation, the antithesis being a solid foundation of brotherhood and equality.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Two more examples of antithesis use imagery of the landscape and music: 

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

The antithesis of despair is hope. The antithesis of discord is harmony or a beautiful symphony. These two lines help set up the series of lines rising to the climax of the speech. In each of these lines, King declares "Let freedom ring" as the song of equality is sung throughout the landscape of America.

The "I Have a Dream" speech is full of antitheses because King is describing the current situation of racial inequality and the speech is bursting with hope for future racial equality.

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