Communication

Why Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ Speech is one of the best speeches of all time

Speeches make and move the world. They are performances: tests for any man, woman and child to show their conviction. They need to, in order to move the crowd. They want to, because that is who they are.

When you do a speech, you’re not speaking to one person. You speak to nations. You speak to markets. You speak to voices of their own. You speak to the lives, burdens and emotions of people.

Do you know how taxing that can be for one person? There’s so much responsibility and so much at stake. It’s why we associate speeches with leaders: speeches are the one of the best ways to witness someone in a high pressure situation. If you can handle one well, you can handle anything.

With that in mind, the three main objectives of any speech would be:

  • Provoke the audience: The first part deals with emotions. Great speeches provoke the audience equally: everyone is on the same page emotionally.
  • Make them think: This part deals with logic. The audience must know which questions to think over, what issues to address. Great presenters let the audience know what they’ve been through, their thoughts, their struggles, and other essential parts of the thought process.
  • Empower them: This deals with character. Strength, energy, and the like. Speeches elevate the audience to become greater (in their own way) than they were prior to the speech. It could be that they know what to do with an issue. It could be that the speech ended with a powerful life lesson that evokes self-awareness. Either way, this is how speeches move nations.

On that note, let’s take a look at one of the best speeches ever recorded: the official speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. To help me with this, I have two resources in my possession:


Ferdie Addis’s I Dare Say: Inside Stories of the World’s Most Powerful Speeches

The first is the speechbook for reference. Having a physical copy of the speech feels nicer to me than finding it online. Plus, it comes with the backstory too!


Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase

The second is a book full of English phrase techniques. Things like antitheses, paradox, zeugma (verbs that carry through the entirety of a sentence unsaid: Tom likes whisky, Dick vodka, Harry crack cocaine). This is a handy book for creatives and lovers of the English language. Helps with your prose too!

Let’s begin:

The Situation

In the year 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a doctorate in theology and years in experience preaching in front of a crowd, was a leader of the growing civil rights movement. A ton of racial segregation laws had prevented black people from fully integrating into the US without any racial backlash. We also had racist paramilitaries like the Ku Klux Klan adding to the racial attacks, via lynch mobs and other methods. This speech was given in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of a large crowd.

King starts off with the following:

Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Breaking down King’s Speech

A score is 20 years. Five score years equal to a century ago. The great American he was referring to here was Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. During his time, he had given a speech aptly named the Gettysburg Address in July 1863 to commemorate the fallen. This was in the middle of the Civil War. The address itself starts off with the following:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Back to King. In the very first sentence, he had already made a throwback to Lincoln’s poise, leadership and sense of justice by emulating the same speech structure. By the very first paragraph, King had established himself as speaking for the people, his people, just as Lincoln did.

Starting off with past exposition (Before, we were ___), highlighting the current issue now (…But 100 years later the Negro still is not free.), and addressing it once and for all (…dramatize a shameful condition). We can think of it as two things:

  1. King finds inspiration in Lincoln’s speeches
  2. This format of past -> now in a speech is effective in highlighting a situation’s key difference.

For Lincoln’s speech, it supposedly went from good to bad:

The proposition that all men are created equal -> Now we are engaged in a great civil war.

and for King, the other way round:

This momentous decree is a great beacon of light -> …still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

Breaking down the paragraph…

This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

This sentence represents hope, a supposedly-empowering emotion when given. A great beacon light of hope could not be said negatively, it must be said with power, strength, and perseverance. It rises up the audience members, provokes them with hopeful emotion. The feelings surface in the first 3 sentences already.

But 100 years later the Negro still is not free.

Immediate drop in hope. Short, snappy, powerful. Presenting this sentence would mean he said it slow, clearly highlighting each word. Still, is, not, free.

One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

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

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

So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

For the next few sentences he goes into detail about that short, powerful sentence. In Eloquence, Mark talked of a tricolon, essentially a list of 3 phrases that work well in a list together. Examples include:

  • Blood, sweat and tears
  • Lies, damned lies, and statistics
  • Ready, steady, go
The power of triplets!

There are many ways to use a tricolon, but I’m focusing on the triplet aspect here: triplets sound sexy to our ears. For some reason, it’s always worked well in rhetoric. Technically, he says it 4 times (which can work, if you’re as eloquent as King). But the triplets here are connected to details, and formatting it as such helps you remember what those details are.

The other technique to note here is a polyptoton.


This means this, this also means that! This means that other thing!

In this case, King outlines the situation (100 years later) to encompass three different details:

  • 100 years later = badly crippled
  • 100 years later = lonely island of poverty
  • 100 years later = exile in his own land

So, using the same phrase over and over again for multiple meanings/uses = polyptoton. Having it said 3 times = tricolon. You now have a rhythm to the speech:

One hundred years later (PAUSE), the later life…

One hundred years later (PAUSE), ….

One hundred years later (PAUSE), ….

It’s almost musical. There’s a slight melody to it.

Side note, he also repeats ‘100 years later’ to highlight the significance of time, the scale at which this speech is talking about. 100 years of freedom? 100 years of segregation and chains of discrimination? The feelings start to change here: from despair to anger, frustration, and other negative feelings associated with lack of freedom. Though, given that it’s King saying this, people believe in his amazing rhetoric. So, they listen.

In one paragraph he takes the listener on a journey:

  • A century ago, someone we respected fought for freedom.
  • Now, we the people are not free in this society.
  • 100 years later, there is still segregation/discrimination
  • 100 years later, there is still poverty even if people prosper around us
  • 100 years later, we are exiles in our own land
  • So, let’s discuss.

The situation is set, the speaker is ready, the audience is willing to listen.

I Have a Dream

The rest of the speech goes through the various issues addressed, which helped with letting the audience think. These are the issues, what should we do, how should we proceed?

As King was done with his speech, someone called to him from the crowd: the singer Mahalia Jackson. She said the magical words:

“Tell them about your dream, Martin.”

And this is where we become empowered.

I say to you my friends, though, 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.

The audience members are human; they all have dreams. To state that his dream is deeply rooted in the ‘American dream’, something that all Americans would be very familiar with at the time, is to state that he will say something relatable.

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

I have a dream that one day = I believe. ‘I believe’ resonates with those who were segregated and discriminated throughout this time. It’s the very definition of hope.

Rising up is to elevate, to empower ourselves to become greater.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”… (that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.)

The creed is a direct quote from the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), to further emphasize his belief in racial equality. Lincoln tended to refer to this statement too. The Declaration is one of the symbols of the USA: it is something that ALL Americans, especially within the audience, should and would pay homage to, as it laid the foundations of the country in the first place.

All men are created equal. The weight of that statement, and its disconnection with the issues stated by King at the time serve to provoke, empower and make people think at the same time. Really powerful.

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.

Unity. No segregation. Also, polyptoton again.

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.

The phrase repeats again. This is how it sticks in our minds: we start to associate King with having a dream. Each and every usage of it is powerful.

But, to have a really good speech written like this is not enough. You need to perform it. This is where King shines:

Can you hear him talking? The tone, the inflections? Can you imagine the voice behind this vernacular masterpiece? It’s a script. We have to hear it. It works best when you hear it.

But the best scripts can make you imagine: could be heard through reading the words. It’s like the words have a will of their own, to pop out and speak to you.

I have a dream (PAUSE) that my four little children (SMALL PAUSE) will one day live in a nation where they will not (EMPHASIZED) be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Look at the words he uses. He chose them specifically to up the tone and intensity of his message.

To be judged not the color of the skin, but by the content of their character. Isn’t that what we all want?

As a listener, the most powerful thoughts would include something along the lines of:

  • I have that same dream too. I have that same hope.
  • I wish for my children to live in such a nation
  • I wish to be treated equally, in an oasis of freedom and justice

The resonance at this point is powerful. It also helps that King knows when to emphasize his voice. Having his voice loud at ‘I have a dream’ followed by a detail every single time serves the greatest purpose of all:

“I still believe. I have hope for this nation.”

This is further boosted by his nonverbal language, his hands, his experience in being a preacher, knowing the right words to use, knowing when to pause, and such. Masterful communication skills at hand here.

Let freedom ring: King’s powerful rhetoric

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.

This is raw emotion right here. Remember, he didn’t plan to talk about his dream. Only when asked to, did it become this masterpiece. Can you hear it? An applause after each sentence above.

The image of Freedom, a key cultural point of America, ringing through all the different states: freedom for the segregated, freedom for the discriminated, freedom and equality in race. King’s dream at this point was already beyond his control: freedom for all. It needs a nation to listen, and it needs a nation to take action.

But speeches can move nations. And his, did.

He moved the nation with his words

Combining faith, rhetoric, and an unrelenting will for freedom, King was able to articulate the feelings of the segregated, stood at the forefront of black equality, and spoke against the nation’s actions. And people supported him.

To answer the question. King’s speech was highly regarded because:

  • He provoked the audience.
  • He made them think.
  • He empowered them.

It wasn’t done through violent means. It was done through an articulate performance, filled with passion, argument, and such greatness and poise on the stage. He took control of the podium, and the audience cheered for more.

He moved the nation with words.

As a result, the speech made politicians notice. in 1964 the US government passed the Civil Rights Act, officially ending segregation. It didn’t end the struggles, but it was a good start.

Nevertheless, he never gave up. He was still waiting (until shot at 39 years old) to sing the old spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Sources:

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