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Today is the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his unforgettable I Have a Dream speech to a crowd of roughly 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.
Early in his speech, King invokes Lincoln and the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. King cites two other vital American documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Using the metaphor of a bad check, King argued that the United States would not be a truly free nation until it fulfilled these promissory notes for all of its citizens, ending segregation, “withering injustice,” and the persecution of black Americans.
An ordained Baptist minister and a doctor of theology, King knew how to craft a sermon and how to deliver a speech. His choice of nonviolent protest meant that his words and his rhetoric would determine the success or failure of his civil rights mission. King was up to the task. There is probably no more telling example of the power of words to persuade, motivate, and change the course of history than the speech King delivered on August 28, 1963.
Rhetoric is the use of language to persuade. Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Martin Luther King, Jr. used many of these “means of persuasion” (also known as rhetorical devices) to persuade his audience. He used metaphor: beacon of hope and manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He used alliteration: dark and desolate, sweltering summer, and Jews and Gentiles. He used antithesis: will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
But more than any other device, King used repetition and anaphora, the repetition of one or more words at the beginning of a phrase or clause.
Certain words echo throughout his speech. Unlike redundancy, this repetition is intentional. These words ring like a bell, repeatedly reminding the listener of key themes. In the I Have a Dream speech, the words justice and dream both ring out eleven times. But one word is repeated far more than any other; the word freedom tolls 20 times. In King’s dream there is no crack in the Liberty Bell; instead, it rings out loudly and clearly, a triumphant declaration that America has finally lived up to its potential.
Anaphora comes from the Greek meaning “I repeat.” It’s the kind of repetition at the beginning of a line or a sentence that you see in the Psalms or in the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
(Matthew 3:3-6 King James Version)
King uses anaphora for six different phrases that echo throughout his speech:
One hundred years later . . .
We refuse to believe . . .
Now is the time . . .
With this faith . . .
I have a dream . . .
Let freedom ring . . . (1).
Today’s Challenge: Repeat After Me
What is something that you think is underrated? What makes this topic so underrated, and why should people hold the topic in higher esteem? Certainly, the purpose of Martin Luther King’s speech was to help the nation to not overlook the importance of civil rights for black Americans. His speech succeeded in changing the course of the movement, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Brainstorm some topics that you think are underrated? Try for a variety of topics, including some serious topics as well as some not so serious topics. Select the one topic you feel is most underrated, and construct an argument where you explain why the topic should be held in higher esteem. In addition to specific evidence and commentary, use anaphora to make your case. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Example: Positively Peripatetic
Walking is underrated. It benefits the body, the mind, and the pocketbook. If everyone in the U.S. were to walk briskly for just thirty minutes per day, we would cut the incidences of chronic diseases dramatically. Walking reduces the risk of heart disease, the risk of diabetes, the risk of arthritis, and the risk of cancer. It’s also good for the mind since studies show that walking reduces the likelihood of clinical depression. Smart seniors know the psychological value of staying active, breathing fresh air, and saving their hard-earned dollars by paying less for gas. Instead of venerating our motor vehicle obsessed society, we should celebrate citizens who stroll along the sidewalks of suburbia. More walkers mean less traffic, less pollution, and less wasted gas money. With so many potential positives, no one should view walking as a pain anymore.
1-The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Stanford University. I Have a Dream Address. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom.