I Have A Dream Speech Analysis of Martin Luther King

We have seen I Have a Dream speech analysis from countless sources over the years.  Unfortunately, the quality of such reviews has varied wildly–with most just barely skimming the service.

In anticipation for a July 4 post, I watched several videos on the subject, and finally found one I was happy to share.

The video, produced by youtube channel “The Nerdist,” offers up it’s own I Have a Dream speech analysis with a focus on several of the rhetorical devices we have discussed in previous posts.  Particularly, he does an excellent job of examining the use of alliteration, anaphora, and other frequent MLK public speaking techniques that often go overlooked.

Before you jump into the video, though, there is one very important rhetorical technique used by Martin Luther King that the segment doesn’t have an opportunity to discuss.

In almost all of the speeches by Martin Luther King — but especially in the “I Have a Dream” speech, there is a continuous and deeply conscious creation of “word paintings.”

We haven’t discussed word paintings in previous posts, but I promise they’ll get their own detailed post in the near future.

In a nutshell, the idea of word paintings as a rhetorical tool is to create visual imagery that your audience can vividly picture, that gives them some sort of physical or emotional reaction.  This seemingly simple technique, properly employed, can deliver huge windfalls for a speaker.  For starters, the technique is one of the best ways to make complex ideas or impersonal data infinitely more relateble and engaging.

It’s one thing for someone to suggest that “in the future, we will strive to eliminate racism.”  But here’s the thing–you close your eyes.  Picture “we will eliminate racism.”  What does that look like?  What is the first visual that comes to mind?

For most of you, the answer is…not much of anything.  It’s vague–it doesn’t produce any kind of strong or inspiring image that we can hold in our mind.  As a result, it ends up being forgettable, and lacks any real sense of impact.

Compare that to King’s actual line, “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 the table of brotherhood.”

By contrast, even if I’m not an American, living in a society completely removed from the concept or from any impact of American history, I can close my eyes and imagine those red hills; I can visualize those sons of slaves and sons of slave owners sitting together at a table.  The symbolism becomes self evident, and the emotions underlying the idea become vivid and memorable.

We see this again and again.    Instead of being told about the “plight of injustice of African American slaves,” we are told of the ” Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”

No matter how much I may support your cause, I can’t *feel* “plight.”  I most definitely can vividly imagine the sensation of being “seared in the flames.”  It gives me a personal, physical experience–at least in the way my body reacts to that mental image–that I can now use as a personal placeholder when I imagine the pain and suffering that the slaves have endured.  Suddenly, even though I have no personal experience with their struggle, the speaker has given me a sensation that will stay with me, allowing me to feel a very real,  literal and deeply personal sense of pain when I consider this otherwise abstract concept in the future.

As you watch the I Have a Dream Speech Analysis video, or even go back and review the entire speech yourself, make note of the ways in which this type of “word paintings” are employed throughout the speech.  In addition to the rhetorical techniques discussed below, it will give you a powerful tool in connecting emotionally with your audience.


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