Today is the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his unforgettable I Have a Dream speech to the crowd of roughly 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial (1).
Early in his speech King invokes Lincoln and the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free (2).
King went on to cite 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 of 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, to motivate, and to 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 American 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 . . . (3)
King also chose one of these examples of anaphora as the title of his speech. The repeated clause I have a dream comes at the climactic moment in the speech which is probably why it is the most frequently quoted part:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four 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.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (2).
Today’s Challenge: Three-Peat After Me
Sometimes writers repeat the same word in succession to get the reader’s attention. In each of the following quotes, the same word is repeated three times. See if you can guess each word.
1. There are three things which the public will always clamor for, sooner or later: namely, ________, _______, and _______. –Thomas Hood
2. Three things in human life are important. The first is to be _____. The second is to be _____. And the third is to be _____. — Henry James
3. To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential — first, _______; second, _______, and once again _______. –Gian Giacomo Di Trivulzio
4. Dancing is just ________, ________, _______.
5. Three things make you a winner in business: _______, _______. And, of course, _______. –Harry Benson
6. The world rests on three things: _______, _______, and _______.
Quote of the Day: Have no unreasonable fear of repetition. . . . The story is told of a feature writer who was doing a piece on the United Fruit Company. He spoke of bananas once; he spoke of bananas twice; he spoke of bananas yet a third time, and now he was desperate. “The world’s leading shippers of the elongated yellow fruit,” he wrote. A fourth banana would have been better. –James J. Kilpatrick
Answers: 1. scandal 2. kind 3. courage 4. practice 5. sales 6. love
1 – Nammour, Chris. The March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomOnline Newshour Posted: 8/27/03
2 – King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream”