Martin Luther King : “I have a Dream” – Analysis

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“I have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968) was an African-American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the African-American civil rights movement during the 1960’s in the United States. His is often referred to as a human rights icon in modern times, his main achievement was to secure progress on civil rights in America.

* The following extract is a transcript from the speech, near the beginning.

The prominent phrase ‘I have a Dream’ which recurred in the speech proved to be so overwhelmingly influential, that this speech earned it’s name from it. This speech influenced and affected many people, both black and white to absorb and be part of this cause, perhaps showing that the power of language has the capability to transform minds and can effect change in the world.
Main Ideas:

* There is bias, discrimination and unfairness to the black members of the community.
* This is a betrayal to the words of the Declaration of Independence, which he views as promising rights to all Americans.
* It is time for a change – people should rise up and work towards the goal of racial equality.
* This was not a momentary movement, and people would not stand for it anymore i.e. it couldn’t be ignored as they would stand firm.
Metaphors make his points emotive and accessible.
> Tone is firm: reflecting the need to stand firm.

Being a baptist minister, Martin Luther King has obvious religious influences in his delivery of the speech, for example it is rather sermon-like (even while being political) and it contains many allusions to Christianity (this would be effective as the speech was delivered to a largely religious America).
“I have a Dream” (1963)

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”
* ‘we’: MLK first beings to insert personal collective pronouns here – indicating the need for collective action.
* ‘nation’s capital’: Refers to Washington D.C.
* ‘cash a check’: a ‘catchy’ phrase which begins an extended metaphor related to finance, which MLK utilizes throughout his speech in delivering the idea that the African-American community deserved and was owed racial equality.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence”
* ‘architects’: a noun used to allude back to history, connotations of building / designing.
* ‘magnificent’: a powerful pre-modifier used to emphasis his opinion of the Declaration of independence. The use of this word also expresses his love for his country, and tells the audience that he is not against his country – he does not wish to appear subversive.
* ‘DoI’: MLK alludes to the declaration of independence, to make his point as well as to perhaps incite patriotic feelings within the audience, usage of possessive pronoun ‘our’ also incites this (also inclusive).
(Yeah), they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
(Yeah): signifies interjections from the audience, possible by a single person or a group.
* ‘promissory note’ – a signed document containing a written promise.
* ‘every’ – determiner which is inclusive, connotes a union.
#Note# Here MLK is delivering the point that he has perceived the signing of the Declaration of Independence to be a promise of rights to all Americans, however this promise has not been honored.
“This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men”
* ‘all’ – this quantifier again emphases that men are men regardless of color.
* ‘yes…’: this phrase is a parenthesis (i.e. it was not entirely necessary) which serves to slow down the pace of the speech as well as to place emphasis on the point.
“would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
* guaranteed: the use of this verb connotes security and certainty, making the betrayal seem even more severe.
* The quote from the DoI adds emphases to his point, and also appeals to American history.
* ‘Liberty’: abstract noun, powerful synonym for freedom and fits into his political-esque speech.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.”
* ‘obvious’: adjective highlight the idea that the discrimination cannot be doubted, or covered up.
* ‘defaulted’: this verb signifies a failure to fulful and obligation (the promise in the DoI), and is especially used in finance (e.g. to repay a loan) or in a court of law, which makes the issue seem grand and severe.
#Note# MLK is extending the imagery first mentioned related to finance, describing this betrayal as something like a ‘business transaction’, attaching ideas such as debt and dues to his point.
* ‘her’: America is personified as a female, connotations of a mother. Leading on from this point, when MLK uses this possessive pronoun to describe the negro population belonging to it, it gives an idea that ‘she’ is saddened because her children have been betrayed.
* ‘citizens of color’: emphasizes the point that this default only applied to the colored population, there is bias and discrimination and emphasizes the hypocrisy of the situation.
“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,”
* ‘instead’: the adverb highlights the treachery that has been committed.
* ‘sacred’: this adjective brings along biblical connotations, and raises the importance of this ‘promise’ – not only was it a promise but it was a promise before God. This would have an impact of the audience who were largely religious.
“America has given the Negro people a bad check which as come back marked ‘insufficient funds’. [sustained applause]”
* ‘bad check’: extending the imagery, the metaphor relating to finance to deliver the idea of a failure to abide by a promise.
#Note# this illustration is powerful because the idea of financial transactions (e.g. cashing checks) has with it connotations of following a established legal system, and any default in it usually means that laws have been bent, broken or unfairly overlooked. It suggests the image of a minority fighting against corruption (‘dirty dealings’) which has adverse connotations.
* ‘insufficient funds’: this happens in actuality perhaps when a check has been bounced, and this makes the metaphor of finance accessible – as it can be considered down to earth in the way that everyone will be able to understand it.
* [sustained applause]: refers to paralinguistic features. These are key features of speech transcriptions, as often than not speeches are interactive in the way that they are designed to be addressed directly to an audience – paralinguistic features display the response of the audience.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. (My Lord) [Laughter] (Sure enough)”
* ‘but’ – (disjunction) that displays that even in the face of the overwhelming, overpowering enemy they will not back down. This helps to change the direction of the speech.
* ‘refuse to’: connotes a sense of pride and honor in the speaker.
* ‘we’ – collective personal pronoun, start of parallel structure.
* ‘bank of justice’: a metaphor, extended imagery relating to finance, stating the point that justice can be served.
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
* repetition of ‘insufficient funds’ which can be thought of as an incredulous way of covering unfairness helps to highlight the bias in the system.
* ‘great vaults of opportunity’ – again extending the metaphor, parallel structure of powerful abstract nouns that incite emotive feelings relating to patriotism.
“So we have come to cash this check (Yes), a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom (Yes) and the security of justice.”[Applause]
* There is more parallel structure here and more extension of the financial metaphor.
* ‘riches of freedom’ – the ultimate goal, the main emphasis of the speech (asserts the value of freedom).
* ‘security of justice’ – they are unsafe, vulnerable, mistreated without it.
#Note# MLK repeats his main points in different wording in order to emphasis the emotive aspects of his message. He refocuses on ideas and returns to them throughout the speech (the revealing of discrimination and the need for fairness, i.e. freedom being one of his main ideas).
“We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
* ‘hallowed’: the verb is a synonym of ‘sacred’ emphasizing the idea of God.
#Note# the fact that MLK utilizes a lot of parallel structure may be an allusion to speeches by Abraham Lincon, as he also used many of these techniques.
* ‘fierce’: powerful adjective.
‘now’: the start of an anaphora (?) – highlights that time is an essence.
“This is no time [My Lord] to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. [Applause]
[My Lord]: religious connotations, interaction in the speech, similar to black churches.
* ‘luxury of cooling off’: as if he is saying it would be a positive thing if they were to water down their hard work and passions, perhaps so that they could get some rest, however he says that that is not an option: i.e. they had to keep working hard at their limits in order to make their desires a reality.
* ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’: a metaphor that suggests that a slower pace would help calm them down, however narcotics have connotations to illegal use, animals being tranquilized to halt their freedom…etc. It would be easier for them, however this is not an option.
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy (My Lord).”
* ‘Now’: anaphora, parrallel structure. The use of monosyllabic words and the lack of pauses in the sentences help to quicken the pace to add to the tone of urgency.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
* Very metaphorical, describes the act of abolishing discrimination to a glorious, heroic act.
* Contrasts the image of darkness with light – akin to a journey that would ultimately lead to enlightenment. Also describes their current suffering (emotive imagery).
“Now is the time [Applause] to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
* ‘quicksands, solid rock’: illustrating idea than man is sinking standing on an unstable ground, and that this should be transformed into solid rock so that man can stand tall (perhaps a biblical reference to Jesus).
* brotherhood: emphasizes unity in the whole population.
“Now is the time [Applause] to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
* ‘God’s children’: biblical and inclusive: everyone was made in God’s image and God cares for everyone.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
* ‘would’: conditional modal verb.
* ‘fatal’: highlighting urgency, forceful.
* ‘overlook’: urging the audience to not let this moment pass.
“The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
* ‘summer, autumn’: metaphorical, transition, summer signifies burning passions (use of seasons). Autumn = refreshing.
* ‘legitimate discontent’: akin to business transaction.
* ‘freedom, equality’: abstract nouns.
#Note# here there is a juxtaposition of images – it describes a goal and that they are standing firm – declarative and builds fervor.
“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
* 1963 is 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation (proclaimed the freedom of the slaves).
* Contrast of concepts, declaring a revolution.
“And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”
* ‘blow off steam’ – idiom.
* ‘rude awakening’ – light threat/
* ‘business as usual’ – extended metaphor, return to corruption.
“There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”
* ‘citizenship rights’ – ultimate goal.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
* ‘whirlwinds’ – metaphor connotations of power, passions.
* ‘bright’ – image of light. Justice is compared to the sun.

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