Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was a life-affirming call to all people to live together in love. But it was something else too: a literary masterpiece. King taught us a lot about peace and understanding, but he also has a lot to teach writers about rhetoric.
Studying King’s rhetorical techniques is a great way to shore up your craft, leading to more memorable poems or characters.
Rhetorical Techniques Of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech
Alliteration. King’s phenomenal ear for the music of language is legendary—and we hear the lyricism of his prose in his alliterations.
Example: Rise from the dark and desolate…the marvelous new militancy…trials and tribulations…
Allusion. King’s speech reaches well beyond his words. He points to shared references that are already heavily loaded with built-in emotion.
Example: Five score years ago, a great American…signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Example: Many references and quotes from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and “Free at Last.”
Amplification. This happens when a writer makes a point twice in a row, with greater emphasis, details, or explanation the second time—thus, amplifying it. It’s powerfully effective.
Example: America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Antithesis. This is a contrast made clear by using contrasting language. In the following, King places color/content and skin/character side by side, drawing our attention to radically different ways of seeing the world.
Example: 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.
Conduplicatio. This is the repetition of a word or phrase, often at the beginning of a series of sentences or phrases.
Example: Repetition of sentences beginning with “I have a dream.”
Litotes. You may be using litotes without even knowing it. By using understatement, along with a double negative, King draws our attention in.
Example: I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.
Metaphor. We’re not talking about “the cloud was a ball of cotton candy.” We’re talking hard-hitting metaphors that aren’t just about making comparisons but about stirring emotions.
Example: [The Emancipation Proclamation] came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
Example: We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Parallelism. With parallel phrasing, King carries his message with engaging, memorable rhythm. Isn’t it gorgeous how the passage below builds?
Example: We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together…
One More Thing We Learn About Rhetoric From Martin Luther King, Jr.
While we’ve taken a moment to dissect some of King’s rhetorical techniques, there’s one key thing that makes this speech such a standout: heart. Separating King’s talent as a writer from his passion for his cause is impossible; the success of this particular speech comes from the combination of passionate caring AND eloquence.
QUESTION: What is the rhetorical technique you use most often in your writing?