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Grammar Granny        < Previous


Good Writing: The 'I Have a Dream' Speech


Martin Luther King Day commemorates the American civil rights movement, and brings to the spotlight one of the greatest speeches of all time. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28,1963. It's credited with prodding Congress to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a real breakthrough for racial equality in the United States. King was awarded the Nobel Prize, largely on the strength of this inspiring speech.


When you read it, look for allusions. An allusion is a reference to something else. If you match an allusion to the knowledge base of your audience, you increase your communication power because your audience is familiar with what you're referring to. Their minds make a quick trip to the reference point to "check in," and then come back to what you are trying to get across. Your point becomes more familiar because you've made that connection with what they already know. Your audience is at ease and in sync with you.


In this speech, Dr. King alludes to Abraham Lincoln, the Bible, small children, specific states, specific mountains and ideals like "brotherhood" and "freedom." These were successful because of his audience's familiarity and emotional attachment to those things. He might have made accurate allusions to scientific facts or Shakespeare, but since his audience wasn't as familiar with those things, those would have fallen flat, and his connecting power wouldn't have been as strong.


Another literary strength of this speech is its metaphors. A metaphor is a word picture that helps the reader or listener imagine what you're trying to say. It's a figure of speech in which something is called something that it is really not. Even with the exaggeration and impossibility of the metaphor, though, a truth is proclaimed. The dictionary definition gives this metaphor: "a mighty fortress is our God." Because you know that the expression goes beyond the literal interpretation, your mind is lifted up and over the material world into the world of imagination. You don't read a lot of metaphors in the daily newspaper or in schoolbooks, so when you encounter one, it's memorable and attractive.


Dr. King's metaphors included slavery word pictures: "the manacles of segregation" and the "chains of discrimination" (manacles are handcuffs). He portrayed racial injustice as "quicksand" and brotherhood as "solid rock." America's freedoms and bounties are depicted as a bank, and the relatively disadvantaged status of black Americans was likened to that entire race of Americans receiving a "bad check." Everyone can relate to that, even if King's white audience couldn't relate to racial discrimination. Note that this speech was given in late August in Washington, so the metaphor of "sweltering summer" to describe the African-American population's discontent and suffering over racism was successful, especially when he called his hope for freedom and equality an "invigorating autumn."


A third writing device in this fine speech is the use of repetition. Dr. King was a preacher, and a very fine one, and he uses the musicality of repeating words and phrases to build the emotional impact of this speech, especially at the end. One reason we respond so strongly to music is that we like repetition; we like to hear the second verse with different words to the same tune. You can use that natural human proclivity by repeating words and phrases selectively to emphasize a point.


Dr. King's exhortation to his audience to go back to their specific states and keep working for racial peace used repetition. Listing various mountains and hillsides across the country and, with a touch of humor, referring to "molehills," unified his points as applying to all Americans. He urged them "to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together."


Study this speech and you will no doubt find many more admirable features in it which commend it as a great piece of writing that will stand the test of time:


The best way to honor a great piece of writing is to memorize all or part of it. Here's a cool way to memorize this immortal speech:


By Susan Darst Williams Grammar Granny 042 2007


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