Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream"
Examining the Rhetorical and Linguistic Considerations of Dr. King's Well-Known Speech
The Historical Message
"I Have a Dream" by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of the most important and well-known speeches in American history. At a crucial moment of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King delineated the travesty of racial inequality as seen in the "land of the free," and he declared a vision for a future wherein "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."
As a message, "I Have a Dream" is groundbreaking. It ranks with The Declaration of Independence, "The Gettysburg Address," and the Bill of Rights as a statement of values for the United States and the American Dream. Dr. King's vision has shaped culture and legislation in ways that have left a lasting impact on how we view, respect, and protect each other as citizens.
Yet in writing this, I am speaking from a single perspective — the point of view of a white American who grew up in Chicago during the 1980s and 90s. At the time I'm writing this, I've been to college, served in the U.S. Army, earned two graduate degrees in creative writing, and taught undergraduate courses for over ten years. Naturally, I have a very different perception of Dr. King's speech now than I did growing up. In many ways, I appreciate the speech and it's importance far more now that I'm better informed — I've seen and read enough to finally understand the degree to which centuries of racism in America have left deep scars that continue to bleed. And I mean this literally: in the United States today, racism carries a price in lives. As an writing instructor — as a teacher of rhetoric — I believe it's crucial that we bring factual information to the classroom so that we can position language and communication within the larger social contexts of reality.
Some Historical Considerations
- 1881-1968: The Tuskegee Institute records at least "4,743 people who died at the hands of US lynch mobs." (trigger warning: linked article includes graphic images and descriptions of lynchings.)
- Until 1954: Segregated schools were legal in the United States. It took several court cases before the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
- 1956: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam described their brutal murder of Emmett Till for Look magazine. They had already been acquitted of murdering the 14-year-old for the "crime" of whistling at a white woman. (trigger warning: linked article gives a graphic description of the murder.)
- 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King delivered "I Have a Dream."
- 1968: After Dr. King's assassination, Coretta Scott King founded The King Center to continue her husband's vision of nonviolent resistance to racism.
- In 2018, African Americans and Hispanics were disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States.
- In 2019, "black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men," according to a University of Michigan study.
The Differences Between Rhetoric, History, and "Knowing"
Understanding the the formulation and impact of Dr. King's speech is complicated. It would be incorrect to claim that "I Have a Dream" ended inequality. It would also be incorrect to say that all African American Civil Rights leaders had a positive impression of the speech. On the one hand, many of our views of "I Have a Dream" have been shaped through the continual retelling and reinterpretation of history — for those of us born in the decades since Dr. King's speech, our awareness of "I Have a Dream" has largely come through textbooks, memorials, and third-hand exhortations from well-meaning teachers who want us to "remember" a past we ourselves didn't live. On the other hand, Dr. King's dream has not yet come to pass — it's not a question of "remembering" so much as living. For many African Americans and others, the legacies of racism and poverty leave young people with a "dream deferred" as articulated in the poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes.
Historically, "I Have a Dream" is a milestone that marks an important cultural shift in America. This cultural shift, however, is ongoing — from the institution of American slavery in the 1600's to the Civil War's Emancipation Proclamation, from the lynchings and segregation of Jim Crow to a wider public acceptance that character and intellect cannot be measured by complexion, race relations in the United States continue to evolve both over time and by region.
Because of this cultural complexity and the depth of emotional impact, "I Have a Dream" provides important insights into the connections between culture, history, rhetoric, and the act of composition. To delve into these, we must first do deeper research into the speech — how and why it was composed, the ways in which audiences have been introduced to it, and the public responses to it. We must understand our own assumptions about the speech, and then find sources that may confirm or contradict our assumptions — sources that will, ultimately, reveal our personal blind spots of awareness.
Composition Considerations for "I Have a Dream"
- You need additional sources to fully understand the social context of the speech. But which ones? How do you find them? Here are some sources describing Mahalia Jackson's role in changing the script of "I Have a Dream."
- Dr. King uses language in moving and evocative ways. How do we analyze his words at the level of grammar, style, and imagery?
- Different audiences see "I Have a Dream" in multiple ways. How do these differences affect our own understanding of Dr. King's speech?
- Dr. King uses multiple rhetorical modes to connect with his audiences. How do ethos, pathos, and logos establish his authority?
- How has technology affected access to the speech itself? Radio, television, microphones, and YouTube have made Dr. King's speech one of the most well-known and recognizable works speaking in the modern era.