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October 18, 2022 On the Papers

Building to a Glorious End: “I Have a Dream” Speech, Part II

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

George D. Gopen

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In my On the Papers article in the last issue of Litigation, I took a close look at the first two-thirds of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This article will make far better sense if you return to read its predecessor. You would also do well to listen to Dr. King deliver the full text of the speech online.

In last issue’s article, I traced the ever-mounting rhetorical crescendo in the speech’s beginning and middle. Of the many rhetorical effects he summons, there are two that are dominant—anaphora and auxesis. Anaphora is the beginning of several consecutive units of discourse with the same, recognizable opening word or words. The most famous example of it in 20th-century American rhetoric is the one now beckoning us—MLK’s beginning of a substantial number of powerful units with the ringing clause “I have a dream.”

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey.

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey.

Anaphora keeps things in order. It tells you when another unit, related to the one you have just read, is about to start. It keeps things parallel.

Because each anaphoric unit has a clearly demarcated beginning and end, anaphora also is capable of creating a crescendo within the unit. But it is also an auxesis—a crescendo; and crescendo after crescendo creates a mega-auxesis, which grows within each unit and from unit to unit.

“I Have a Dream”

MLK has created anaphorae to this point in the speech by using the following repeated markers: (1) “100 years later”; (2) “Now is the time”; (3) “We can never be satisfied”; (4) “Some of you have come here”; (5) and “Go back to. . . .” The last of these shot off its anaphoric markers in rapid fire: “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.” With only one sentence’s rest, he presents his next, crowning anaphora by multiple iterations of the marker’s chief word, “dream,” before that dream is allowed to take over the organization of the next two paragraphs:

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. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

There it is, “dream,” in the stress position at the end of one sentence, followed by its reappearance four words later at the beginning of the next sentence; it also ends that sentence, and then, four words later, begins the following sentence. The whole paragraph comes to closure on Jefferson’s famous statement of equality in the Declaration of Independence. He has revved up the rhetorical engine.

He ends the passage by beginning the extended “I have a dream” anaphorical section that will stretch for a long time to support a continual figure of speech. It results in a sublime auxesis. And in its middle, he performs a dazzling oratorical miracle that you cannot see on the page when you read it but proves completely gripping when you listen to it. Let us watch this unfold.

The sentence that includes his quotation of Jefferson, beginning with “I have a dream,” creates his first anaphoric unit. Counting (as I will consistently) from the end of the marker, we are given 30 more words. The second, third, and fourth anaphoric units will be essentially equal in length—33, 32, and 31 words long. The auxesis will not depend on the sheer length of its units but rather be stoked by the constant intensification of its content.

The second anaphoric unit gives us a peaceful vision:

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.

Georgia at that time was a seat of great racial unrest; but it paled somewhat in comparison with the distress in Mississippi and Alabama. We note that the parties sitting down at the table in Georgia are equal; they therefore are equally balanced by another of his pairs—the sons and the sons.

The third unit moves us to the more troubled state of Mississippi:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

He increases the tension here by his use of two more pairs: On the one hand, we have a pair of swelterings; and on the other, the dream resolves that tension into a mild-weathered oasis of the pair of desiderata, “freedom and justice.”

A Rhetorical Magic Trick

It is at the end of this unit that he performs his rhetorical magic trick. In declaiming the text, he does not pause at the period after “freedom and justice”; instead, he plunges headlong into the “I have a dream” that begins the fourth unit, which will envision a great future for his children. But at the word “dream,” then he pauses. So he both begins and ends the Mississippi unit with “I have a dream.”

At first, this might seem to be a usage of another figure of speech known as epanalepsis—the beginning and ending of a unit with the same words:

Nothing will come of nothing. (King Lear)

Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)

But nothing so tame as that is happening here. The Reverend King seems to have shifted from anaphora to its sibling figure of epistrophe—the ending of several units of discourse with the same word or words. This is a favorite technique of African American preachers. The simplest example is when a congregation is invited to say “amen” at the end of a number of points being made by the preacher. With every successive “amen,” the congregational response tends to grow in volume and power. In other words, epistrophe is also a way to create an auxesis. His combination of the two rhetorical techniques makes the auxesis potentially explosive.

The magic here is in King’s delivery. “I have a dream,” for the rest of this whole passage, functions simultaneously as a beginning and an end. That results in our experiencing the closure of one dream and the beginning of the next at the same moment, each time with a resultant increasing force. Ending one dream with the words—and grammatical structure—that begins the next produces an extraordinary generation of energy and emotion, both in the speaker and in his audience.

Shakespeare (no surprise) articulates this phenomenon better than anyone else. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus (in act 2, scene 2) describes Cleopatra’s trip down the Nile with the lushest of detail, in an attempt to indicate her almost incredible powers of sexual control over all who see her. He ends with this:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety; other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where she most satisfies.

What an extraordinary sexual power she possessed—being able simultaneously to excite anew at the very moment of greatest fulfillment.

This same kind of energetic simultaneity MLK achieves by ending one anaphoric unit and beginning another with a single utterance of “I have a dream”: The energy gained by affecting closure combines with the energy given a new and echoing beginning. It is principally from this technique of combining anaphora and epistrophe that he can sustain such a long and glorious auxesis. Though it is nowhere visible on the page, it is clearly present when we listen to his delivery.

So the “I have a dream” that looks on the page just to be beginning the fourth (and most often quoted) of his dreams is actually heard by his audience to end the third, sweltering Mississippi dream. It does both jobs simultaneously. Here is the fourth subunit, in full:

I have a dream that 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.

This (perhaps) best loved dream is made memorable, and easily memorizable, by the rhythmic echo and the alliteration of yet again another set of the balancing of two things: “Color” is opposed by “content”; “skin” is opposed by “character”; and the “k” sounds in all four of those words make the comparison between the outer and the inner of those children ring.

This visionary moment needed closure. For his fifth subunit, Dr. King provides that by adding just a single word, not 30 or so, to his anaphoric/epistrophic marker:

I have a dream today.

The marker takes over, all by itself—as a beginning and an end in itself.

After that refreshing stop at the oasis, the sixth unit comes roaring at us, followed by the seventh—the latter being a repetition of the five-word, one-sentence fifth subunit.

Notice how he raises the heat in the sixth subunit—57 words instead of the 30 or so words for the first four subunits—which brings us to Alabama and Governor George Wallace:

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

This dream gets interrupted grammatically, at great length. The dream, that “one day . . . little black boys and black girls . . . ,” must wait upon a 27-word outburst brought upon him by the very mention of Alabama. We get two of his bifurcated pairs—the racists and the governor on the one hand, and the multi-syllabic “interposition and nullification” terms that are longer (five syllables each), more Latinate, and more condescending than any of the other words in this speech. The repeated vowel sounds in “lips” and “dripping” add to the ugliness and bestiality of the animal imagery they present.

But the true balanced couple here is the juxtaposition of the racists and the governor on the one hand and the double-double of the black boys and black girls with the white boys and white girls on the other. The 18 words devoted to the former, as horrible as the image might be, are outdone by the 23 words of the children joining hands. No wonder he punctuates the speech by another solo sentence—the seventh anaphoric unit—“I have a dream today.”

How could he write the final words of this long auxesis so that they would be powerful enough to absorb all the tension of the build-up and be grand enough to bring it to a sufficient, successful closure? He was wise enough to repeat his solution to that problem with his earlier “we can never be satisfied” auxesis: He gives up his own voice in favor of the Bible’s:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

Again, at 48 words, this is significantly longer than any of the first four subunits. He is quoting Isaiah 40:4. You can locate the several balancings of two elements throughout, which flow so easily from the rest of the speech.

I think it significant that these words also evoke a famous piece of music. They are the text for the opening tenor aria from Handel’s Messiah. MLK is invoking a human solution to racism that parallels the messianic vision of a day of equality and peace. But for those who know the famous work by Handel, they hear the music of it as well. MLK will invoke two other pieces of music before he is finished.

He sums all of this up, having now ended his “dream” auxesis, with a simple statement, “This is our hope.” He echoes that immediately with “This is a faith.” That is his springboard into his new and penultimate anaphoric unit. Here are all of its three subunits:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

The Final Crescendo

He orates this with a sense of expansion throughout, but with no sense of a crescendo that will need to be satisfied by a glorious arrival at its end. He had to save that drama for the final anaphora, which will bring us to the speech’s final closure—and to a grand climax.

The mini-drama of the penultimate anaphora is in part due to its sizing. The first two “with this faith” subunits have 16 and 18 words following the anaphoric marker. The first invokes a stony metaphor and the second a musical one. To end the speech, later, he will take up the musical metaphor by giving us the lyrics of a song his whole audience was likely to know; and then he will revisit the mountains and the stones. He is doing the prep work for that ending here.

The third, much longer subunit (32 words) itself contains an internal anaphoric burst built out of five infinitives—“to work,” “to pray,” and so forth.

With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

It becomes a mini-auxesis by itself, reaching closure with the ultimate dream words “be free one day.”

As he has done so often to this point, he takes the word that occupies the stress position of the just-ended sentence, in this case “day,” and imports it into the next sentence, beginning the next section. At this moment, I sense, Dr. King was starting to lose his total, cool control, and got just a touch nervous—or at least anticipatory—since he knew the grand climax was nearing. It led him to repeat his opening clause, “This will be the day”:

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, My country, ‘Tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, Let freedom ring. If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

Here he combines the music and the mountainsides of his previous paragraph, and brings us to the end of the song’s invocation, “let freedom ring.” This is traditionally thought of as white music; but he makes it, given his vision, inclusory music that reaches all Americans, no matter their race. By ending his musical quotation with “let freedom ring,” he can—yet once again—use that stress position occupant to establish the marker for his next and final anaphoric unit. It is an auxesis in itself; but it supplies a climax for the sensed crescendo that continues all the way through the speech. The whole speech has become one long, manipulated auxesis, with the anaphora as its culmination and climax.

So we come to the finale, a cinematographic tour of the entire country, in a conveyance forged by anaphora:

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

The anaphoric reference to that white patriotic song carries us throughout the United States on a well-organized tour of its mountains, large and small: We start in the northeast (New Hampshire); we descend in a southerly direction to encounter New York; then farther in the same direction to Pennsylvania; and then we sweep across the country to Colorado. And all this time, the mountains are getting bigger and bigger: They form a kind of pictorial auxesis by themselves. We complete the westward swing by arriving in California.

To this point, we have not visited the south, the primary focus of Dr. King’s geography. When we get there, we find mountains in Georgia and Tennessee that have Civil War and Ku Klux Klan connections. When we reach Mississippi, whose highest point is a non-mountainous 807 feet, we are greeted with mere hills and ignominious molehills.

Now in a real state of excitement, Dr. King stumbles over his transition to the speech’s final sentence (speeding through “when we allow freedom ring” instead of “when we allow freedom to ring”), and delivers to us his final hailstorm of balanced pairs—village/hamlet, state/city, Black men/white men, Jews/Gentiles, Protestants/Catholics—all of whom will be able to join hands and sing a comprehensive, inclusionary hymn—a famous piece of Black music. Like so many other moments in the speech, he anaphorically repeats a phrase at the beginning—“Free at last!”—and then ends with it: “Free at last.” The final auxesis, and the overall auxesis, has come to a glorious end.


I have never, in these articles in On the Papers, stated any of my personal beliefs on issues. My concern is rhetoric and writing. But in this case (and I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day of 2022), I want to state that although our racial problems in this country are nowhere near solved, I think it is important to take note, every once in a while, of the extraordinary progress that has been made since the early 1960s, when race became recognized as one of the country’s most pressing problems. A few years ago, while reading a newspaper article about the championship basketball game in North Carolina’s statewide high school tournament, I became fixated on the accompanying photograph of two members of the victorious team. They were leaning against each other, obviously still exhausted from the contest, forehead to forehead, with their arms curled around each other’s neck. One was white and one was Black. No such photograph would have been printed in a newspaper in North Carolina 60 years earlier. Being someone who was coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, that picture brought tears to my eyes. I wish Dr. King had survived to see it.

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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.