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July 19, 2022 Column

ON THE PAPERS: The Rhetorical Reasons Why Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech Is One of the Greatest 20th Century American Oratorical Gems

An understanding of how Dr. King achieved his oratorical success may well help you better serve your clients.

George D. Gopen

Download a printable PDF of this article.

[I urge you, either before or after reading this article, or both, to listen to the speech online. It is 16 minutes in length.]

If we formed a committee to choose the top five greatest American speeches of the 20th century, you can be sure that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would be, as the sportscasters say, “in the conversation.” Narrow the choice down to two and it would probably still be there. The odds would probably be in its favor to win. Why?

Context controls meaning. It also affects memorability. The Reverend King gave this speech at the right place (in the shadow of the Lincoln memorial), at the right time (100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation), and at a moment of great racial intensity in our history. He had a captive audience of millions. He was expert at making speeches. He understood the politics of the moment. He wrote it brilliantly. But what made it brilliant? His delivery was perfection itself. But how did he manage that?

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey.

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey.

The answers lie in his control of three ancient rhetorical figures of speech—anaphora, auxesis, and epistrophe. You probably will never have the opportunity to sway a nation with your oratory; but you may often have the opportunity to sway a room. An understanding of how Dr. King achieved his success may well help you better serve your clients.

King’s Use of Anaphora (Openings)

Anaphora is the beginning of several consecutive units of discourse with the same, recognizable opening word or words. You might immediately recognize that the famous “I have a dream” section of his speech is subdivided into a number of dreams, all introduced by the anaphoric unit marker “I have a dream.”

But that was—by far—not his only use of anaphora. In the speech, he uses it eight times. It became a form of cheerleading. In this essay, On the Papers will look at some of those passages that precede the famous one. In the next essay, we will follow him from that moment to his stunning conclusion.

His first anaphoric passage is introduced by noting that the Emancipation Proclamation occurred 100 years ago; and “100 years” becomes his anaphoric marker.

but 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.

100 years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

100 years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

100 years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.

The passage grows as it goes. The first unit is simple. It contains only six words after the anaphoric marker “100 years later.” It contains but a single, simple clause.

The second unit expands: It contains 19 additional words; and its verb, “is crippled,” depends on two agents (“manacles” and “chains”); and those agents are balanced with each other by each having its own prepositional phrase (“of segregation” and “of discrimination”). Note that balancing of twos. He uses it throughout the speech—to the point where we come, as listeners, to depend on it.

The third unit contains 20 words. It too is balanced, but this time not by twos but by threes: The three words “lonely island of poverty” balance the “vast ocean of . . . prosperity.” But the second of these triples is made slightly longer by including the additional adjective “material”: “lonely island of poverty” // “vast ocean of material prosperity.” This too is a constant device of his: If in balancing two essentially equal units you make the second one just slightly longer or heavier or more dramatic, the audience senses a slight sense of expansion and crescendo.

The last of these “100 year” units continues that sense of expansion; for this time, the grammatical subject is afforded two verbs, each of which is followed by a balanced modifier—“in the corners of American society” and “in exile in his own land.”

The crescendo in this passage is present, but not dramatic. It is too early in the speech for serious drama. The crescendo has a technical name—auxesis. We can already sense that auxesis can be created by a notable anaphora. Say “100 years later” four times, following each one by a serious statement that grows in complexity while still staying within the bounds of control. No violence. The control is produced by the insistence of everything being balanced, rhythmically and grammatically. He will repeat these techniques—anaphora, auxesis, tempered by balance—throughout the speech. Each anaphora builds on those before it, creating a speech-long auxesis that leads to an explosion at its end.

“100 years later” emphasizes in its repetition just how long a period has passed without true freedom having materialized. The next anaphoric passage follows the metaphor of his community having been given a bad check. At its end, he uses a tame banking term that at the same time sounds threatening: “So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom, and the security of justice.” He connects this to another tame word, “now,” that also sounds somehow threatening, especially since he reserves it for the stress position of the end of the sentence: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” Having emphasized the word “now” by its placement at the end, he can then link it forward to “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” If this is indeed “no time” for cooling off, then what kind of time could it be? He combines “now” and “time” to create his next anaphoric marker, “Now is the time.”

This time, building four anaphoric units as before, he does not repeat the constant growth from one unit to the next. Instead, he starts with a simple statement, grows larger and heavier for the second, balances the second by the third, and returns to a simple statement for the fourth. This produces a crescendo followed by a decrescendo. The units threaten to grow out of control but are contained once again by balance:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Counting the words that follow the “Now is the time” marker, we have 11 words, followed by 21, followed by 20, followed by 14. Size alone carries us out and brings us back. You can clearly see the balancing factors in the second and third units: the “dark and desolate valley” is resolved into the “sunlit path of racial justice”; the “quicksands of racial injustice” are resolved into the “solid rock of brotherhood.” The first and fourth more simple units also balance each other. So here we have an anaphora that intentionally does not create an auxesis. The prose here is balanced, contained, and markedly nonviolent.

He devotes his next remarks to urging all of his race not to lose control but to remain nonviolent.

Repetition Creates a Crescendo

Immediately thereafter, he builds a third anaphoric unit that heats up the matter considerably. He introduces it with a question that devotes its stress position to words that will immediately become the next anaphoric marker: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied?” The four subunits of the previous anaphorae here grow to six subunits, each one pounding away to create a dramatic auxesis. The anaphoric marker is itself a full main clause—“We can never be satisfied”:

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negroes’ basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, For Whites Only.

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Here, the multiple repetitions of the troubling anaphoric marker are enough by themselves to create an auxesis. The subunits grow not in size so much as in complexity, especially the fourth and fifth. We see again the careful balancings—“smaller” and “larger,” “stripped” and “robbed” (both violent words), and “Mississippi” and “New York.” We see again the increase in weight in the second of two balanced phrases—“cannot vote” and “has nothing for which to vote.”

The climactic sixth unit lets this auxesis explode—but not into violence. In that unit, Dr. King gives up his own voice in favor of that of a biblical text, from Amos 5:24. The final deluge is not one of destruction but of salvation. Let it all out—but control it. The Amos quotation uses the same kind of balance, with justice/righteousness resulting in waters/mighty stream. You can now guess from where Dr. King derived most of his rhetorical examples.

What comes next is an anaphoric wonder. He begins by giving us three iterations of “Some of you have come”, which he introduces with the words “I am not unmindful that . . .”:

[S]ome of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.

Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.

Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

In the last of these units, we see again his technique of clearly balancing the “battered” and “staggered” subunits, while making the second of the two just a touch heavier. The three main words of “battered by the storms of persecution” become four main words in “staggered by the winds of police brutality.” Note that he also gives us sound repetitions—the s sounds in “storms” and “staggered,” the b sounds in “battered” and “brutality,” and the vowel sounds in “battered” and “staggered.” All these taken together produced a polished piece of rhetoric, a sublime piece of oratory.

He ends this anaphora with a most remarkable sentence: “You have been the veterans of creative suffering.” It is an eight-word buffer zone of sympathy, empathy, and pity. It snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

Then immediately, having given us a short anaphoric passage on where his people “have come from,” he follows it up with another anaphoric parade built on his advice to them as to where they should “go back to”:

Go back to Mississippi,

go back to Alabama,

go back to South Carolina,

go back to Georgia,

go back to Louisiana,

go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

What a change of anaphoric tempo! Instead of anaphoric sentences, we get a single, fast-paced sentence that contains five anaphoric subunits. The first four pound away at Southern states; and the longer fifth one takes care of the entire North. But although sounding like a possible crescendo, this anaphora does not reach its conclusion with any sense of climax. It is in the service of the next anaphora, which will follow this memorable passage:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

Here we go. He has already prepared us with five anaphorical passages, almost each of which creates a local auxesis. Taken together, they have built a continual tension that has led us to this moment. The stage is set.

We can therefore view the next, famous, “I have a dream” anaphoric unit as a climactic arrival, prepared for by these multiple, smaller anaphoras that have preceded it. He will then add to it that third rhetorical device, epistrophe—the ending of several consecutive units with the same words, much in the way anaphora begins them. His intertwining of epistrophe and anaphora in a public speech is, in my experience, unique. I think it is a major reason the “I have a dream” unit is as well remembered as it is; and it depends not simply on the written text, but more dramatically on the way he orates the text.

In my next essay, we will explore this famous climax—and the ways in which, at its end, he is able to maintain that climactic energy and forge a yet greater auxesis that explodes in an even greater climax at his speech’s end.

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George D. Gopen

Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric

The author is Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke University.