On August 28th, it will be 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King delivered his most famous utterance to 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington.
The speech must surely be one of, if not the most famous public orations of all time. It was a defining moment for the American Civil Rights movement and is widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric.
It begins with a reference to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and ends with a peroration on the repeated theme of its most famous phrase. It is a rhetorical tour de force employing metaphor, imagery, allusion, contrast, anaphora and perhaps most effectively, the rule of three.
The structure and message of the speech is crystal clear and the use of repetition to deliver successive points directs the audience to each new point informing them that each is part of the overall dream:
‘I have a dream that one day this nation…
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi…’
Contrast is an extremely effective method of getting your point across with impact:
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
Metaphors and imagery abound – ‘the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice’ and ‘a beacon light of hope shining across America.’
The effortless combination of these devices adds to the brilliance of the structure. Note in the metaphor above the added alliteration in ‘dark’ and ‘desolate’ and here the list of three combined with repetition.
“free at last,
free at last,
thank God Almighty, we’re free at last”
As for the actual delivery, Dr King’s lilting Baptist background breathes life into the words in the same way that Olivier enriched the words of Shakespeare. The pace changes, pitch range and pauses coupled with the