“I Have a Dream” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Literary devices are the tools and techniques of language that authors use to convey meaning. Skilled use of literary devices brings richness and clarity to a text.. http//www.udledition.cast.org/craft-id.html

Literary devices refer to specific aspects of literature in the sense of its universal function as an art form, which expresses ideas through language which can organize, identify, interpret and /or analyze. Braiman (2007)

Literary devices are the tools a literary writer uses in creating an effective literary work and which also help in distinguishing a literary work from a non- literary work. These literary devices are used not only to literary texts, but also always used in speech, to make the speech effective and appealing to the listeners of the speech.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was one of the principal leaders of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of non-violent protests in America. One of his historical watersheds is the speech “I Have a Dream” that he delivered in the historical march on 28th August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial Washington DC.

To make his speech effective, and leave a memorable mark in the hearts of his audience, Dr Martin enriched his speech with numerous literary techniques, to engage his listeners. He used a lot of literary device throughout his speech some of which will be discussed in this work. These devices are the foundations of Dr. Martin’s unique and effective style.

The following are the chief literary devices that he used to make his speech sink deeper in the hearts of the Negroes but also the Whites who were the target enemy.

 Dr Martin, used repetition throughout the speech. Repetition is a literary device in which sound, words, phrases, lines or stanzas are repeated for emphasis in a poem or other literary works. Chin (2003).  King’s speech is a perfect representation of this. In his speech Dr has often repeated the word “dream” to put an emphasis on it. The following few lines in paragraph 17 illustrates this;

“And 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’.


In the last concluding remarks he says;

“Free at last! Free at last!

. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Also some individual words have been repeated several times in the speech depending on the importance he attaches to them. For example

  •  freedom (20 times)
  • we (30 times), our (17 times), you (8 times)
  • nation (10 times), America (5 times), American (4 times)
  • justice (8 times) and injustice (3 times)
  • dream (11 times)

Dr. has also repeated the title “I Have a Dream” several times, followed by the things that he knows people are hoping for. He wants his listeners to see this visualization becoming reality.

Another literary device Dr Martin used is Metaphor. This is a literary device that makes direct comparison between two unlike things. It suggests that one thing is another thing or is equal to another thing. Metaphors create vivid descriptions with few words as the subject of comparison takes on the qualities of the thing with which it is compared. Dr Martin has used extended metaphors and contrasting metaphors. For example in the paragraphs 4 & 5 he uses the metaphor in describing the promissory note (check) and insufficient funds.

[4] In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

[5] But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And 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.

In the above paragraph, Dr Martin uses the metaphors of promissory note (check) and insufficient funds (bouncing) to engage the listener, since America is a capitalist society, so this metaphor is well understood by his audience due to its familiarity. He illustrates the injustice that the Americans have placed upon the colored citizens in contrasting idea of moral debt (owed by the country) to a financial debt.

He also refers to Americans as heirs to which this debt is owed, to signify that all the people are entitled to their inalienable and unquestionable rights. He also refers to freedom as riches; gradualism as tranquilizing drug. All these were meant to impact actions; the action cannot be gradual as it cannot be effective.

 Dr Martin has also used contrasting metaphors to highlight the contrast between two abstract concepts. Writers use metaphors to associate speech concepts with concrete images and emotions  Dlugan (2009)

. For Example Dr. contrasts dark and deep valley with (segregation) and sunlit path as (racial justice).

Other contrasting metaphors include

Joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity (paragraph 2)

“The Negro lives in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (paragraph 3).

“..rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlight path of racial justice.” (Paragraph 6)

“The sweltering summer of the Negros legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. (Paragraph 7}

“Weltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into the oasis of freedom and justice.”

“The whirlwind of revolts will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges”. (Paragraph 7) 


Dr. Martin has also used allusion. Evoking historical and literary references is a powerful speech writing technique which can be executed explicitly (a direct quotation) or implicitly (allusion). Allusion is a literary device in which the writer or speaker refers either directly or indirectly to a person, event, or thing in history to a work of art or literature. (ibid). Also a referent to a familiar person, event, place in history, literature or myth. Purves & Quattrini (1997) Dr. has used allusions like;

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation” (paragraph 2)

This refers to Lincoln, given that King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

“Life liberty and pursuit of happiness”- is a reference to United States Declaration of Independence.

“It came as joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity”.


Frequently, Dr Martin also made use of Anaphora.  Anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of neighboring clauses) is a commonly used rhetorical device. Repeating the words twice sets the pattern, and further repetitions emphasize the pattern and increase the rhetorical effect. (ibid) “I have a dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences. But this is just one of eight occurrences of anaphora in this speech. By order of introduction, here are the key phrases:

“One hundred years later…” [paragraph 3]

“Now is the time…” [paragraph 6]

“We must…” [paragraph 8]

“We can never (cannot) be satisfied…” [paragraph 13]

“Go back to…” [paragraph 14]

“I Have a Dream…” [paragraphs 16 through 24]

“With this faith, …” [paragraph 26]

“Let freedom ring (from) …” [paragraphs 27 through 41]   for example.

[32]And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

[33] Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

[34] Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

[35] Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

[36] Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

[37] But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

[38] Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

[39] Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.


Dr. Martin used parallelism/parallel structures. This is the repetition of the same pattern of words or phrases within a sentence or passage to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. From http//udledictions.cast.org/craft_Id_parallel.html or the repetition of words, phrases, or sentences that have the same grammatical structure or that re-state a similar idea. In most cases Dr. has used parallelism to organize ideas within a sentence or within longer passages.  For example within sentences he says;

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 (paragraph 14)…. also 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:

In longer passages Dr. uses parallelism to organize and emphasize hi messages by showing his listeners that freedom fighting is a national wide issue. His repetitions also create a kind of rhythm that works well in public speaking when he says:

[32] And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

[33] Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

[34] Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

[35] Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

[36] Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

[37] But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.


Dr. has also used similes in his speech. A simile is a figure of speech that make a comparison between two dissimilar things and uses the words “like”, “as”, “than” and ‘resemble”. (ibid) This makes the speech vivid by comparing their subjects with known things or events. Effective similes make the readers visualize what is being described. In Dr’s speech the similes are manifested in the last sentence of the 13th paragraph when Dr. says;

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

Dr. Martin has made use of imagery in his speech. Imagery is a language which describes something in details using word to substitute for and create sensory stimulation, including visual imagery, sound imagery and tactile imagery. Braiman (2007). This also refers to word pictures which writers use to help evoke an emotional response in readers. He tries to make his listeners visualize, feel, and taste the kind of the future he is talking about. The title “I Have a Dream” itself is an image of future, the kind of future the American society should aspire for. But additionally, Dr. has used the following imagery.

Visual imagery in paragraph 6, Dr. makes us visualize the “dark and desolate valley of segregation”. In fact, how the Negros have been put under the embarrassing condition, if we are to consider the situation in the valley with darkness, and how it really looks in our mind. Consequently, he adds yet another imagery which makes us visualize the vision of hope. Dr uses the word “to the sunlight path of racial justice

Another visual imagery is found in paragraph, 6. Dr refers to racial injustice as “quicksands” and brotherhood as “a solid rock” this creates to us a strong visual and physical image, to these non physical terms.  The term ‘quicksands’ represents unstable existence, while on the other hand “the solid rock” represents strength and stability, it stands for steadiness and support. Dr. says

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

He uses the tactile imagery (imagery of feelings) to make his listeners feel the kind of sufferings they experience in different places. He compares them with heat. As heat is a familiar thing to them, they feel the pains of racial injustice and oppression the same way one may feel heat. Dr says.

“ [19] 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.”

Personification has been used to concretize some of the ideas. Personification is a figure of speech that attributes human characteristics to objects, animals or natural forces. Purves & Quattrini (1997). Inanimate things are made to behave like human beings. This helps to connect the reader with the thing that is personified. In King’s speech this is manifested in paragraph 4 when Dr. refers to America (a country) as if is a human being, who has betrayed the Negros and oppresses them instead of directly referring to White men. Dr says:  

.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check…”

Again personification is used in paragraph 17 when he says “that one day the nation (America) will rise up and live out the true meaning…” America is hereby being compared to a human being who can rise up and live the true meaning of his creed. Dr says:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”

Dr uses the paradox in paragraph 3. Paradox is a figure of speech that contains two statements or assertions that, according to logic, cannot be true, yet the figure links them in a way that creates a new meaning, one that defies logic but works on situation. Purves & Quattrini (1997). Dr says;

“..the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land”

In the above sentence, logically speaking, one cannot be in exile while he is still in his own land, as the true meaning of the word exile is. But the situation described, is the one that makes us see as if the Negros are in exile, since they have nothing to enjoy in their own land.

Generally, Figures of speech are the effective tools of making the speech alive and appealing to the innermost emotions of the hearer and reader. They are speech building blocks to the writer, as bricks are to the mason. They help to make a speech interesting to follow but also impact the actions to the audience. However, the speech writers are advised not to include so many figures of speech since they may confuse the audience, when trying to digest the message in the speech. Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. has proved a very successful speech writer as his speech has lived beyond its setting to be remembered even after his death.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s