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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What five words does Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. use to establish tone in his "I Have A Dream" speech?

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In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. blends realism with hope. He maintains that African Americans are still “not free” and are “sadly crippled” by segregation and discrimination. They remain in “exile.” Yet they must not “wallow” in despair but reach out for the dream of freedom with faith and hope and struggle together for it so they can “let freedom ring” throughout the land.

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King's 1963 speech mixes a tone of condemnation towards present injustice to Black people with a contrasting tone of rising optimism about the future. Two words that jump out as setting the tone are "injustice" and "promissory note" to describe the condition of Black people in a prospering and powerful nation. Three words that set the contrasting tone of optimism are "freedom," "dream," and "ring."

The word "injustice," which is repeated throughout the speech by King, and the term "promissory note" convey the limbo-like feelings of betrayal which Black people experience. They have been promised freedom for a hundred years, but like a person patiently awaiting repayment of debt for which they hold a note, they are getting exasperated. Over and over again, they are not receiving the justice and equality that was promised with emancipation from slavery.

At the end of the speech, however, King turns more and more to visionary language that expresses a tone of hope and paints a picture of a better future. He repeats the word "dream" over and over, describing his vision of a more equal and just nation. He also uses the words "freedom" and "ring" over and over again in a rising crescendo that creates a glowing feeling of hope that is like the ringing of a bell. The word "freedom" is strongly associated with the values most Americans cherish while the word "ring" conjures up the Liberty Bell. These words would have created warm feelings in many Americans about the desirability of King's vision.

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In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr.'s primary tone is hope shaded with realism. He is realistic about the continuing state of African American oppression and lack of full rights and freedom at the time of his speech, but he is hopeful that conditions will improve when people work together and hold onto their commitment to freedom. Let's look at some of the words King uses to express these interwoven tones of realism and hope.

King is realistic about the situation of African Americans. People are still “not free” even a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They are still “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Notice how King uses these images of slavery as an analogy for the modern situation. People are still “languished” and “in exile,” even in their own country.

Yet King refuses to believe that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence do not apply to everyone. Justice is not “bankrupt,” even though it often seems that America has reneged on its promises to the African-American people. Democracy still exists. “Now is the time to rise,” he asserts, “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” In these phrases, King combines his themes of realism and hope.

He further proclaims that the “devotees of civil rights” will never be satisfied until African Americans are no longer oppressed or segregated or brutalized, but he will not “wallow in the valley of despair.” Indeed, King has a dream, and he repeats the words “I have a dream” over and over for emphasis. Herein lies his hope and his “faith” that things can change for the better as people “work together,” “pray together,” and “struggle together” for their freedom. He ends his speech with a chorus of “let freedom ring” to excite and encourage his audience.

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In rereading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, there are words and phrases that jump out at me, again...and again.

In terms of Rev. King's tone, I think there was a sense of hope, but also the recollection of the dangerous and arduous journey people of color had made to arrive at that place and time, so long after they were promised freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Words and/or phrases that set a "hopeful" tone include:

momentous; beacon of light; joyous daybreak; magnificent words; promise; unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; sacred obligation; great vaults of opportunity; riches of freedom; security of justice; the sunlit path of racial justice; invigorating autumn freedom; high plane of dignity and discipline, etc.

A darker tone is found in word and/or phrases like:

seared in the flames of withering injustice; crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; languishing; exile; shameful; defaulted; bank of justice is bankrupt; the dark and desolate valley of segregation; fatal; discontent; rude awakening, etc.

In his speech, I believe Rev. King moved between light and dark imagery to recall the hardships of the past, without losing sight of the promise of the future. His harsh words reflected horrific times, while his hopeful words and phrases, by comparison, let people know that the pain of the past was not forgotten, and that it was also not in vain—and that after so many years of struggle and oppression, that a new era was dawning for all people. Rev. King's message was about non-violent demonstration. His words here, meant to move hearts and change minds did not lay blame, but directed all eyes to the realization of dreams long-held, which were only a short way off.

There is no doubt that Rev. King's ability to keep both the dark and the light in perspective made this speech one that still moves audiences all these years later.

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