Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the people whose influence on the development of modern attitudes and values is hard to overestimate. Though his lifetime was quite short, the way he lived it and the ideas he managed to share with millions of people made it comparable to the unforgettable trace of a shooting star that arrests the attention of every person who looks at the sky. Martin Luther King inspired generations of followers and fighters for the true justice and equality. His speech “I Have a Dream…” showed millions of African-American people that there is a hope and a future for them, and it depends on them how soon this future will come, as things can and should be changed. The choice of the wording, structure and imagery made this speech one of the most effective examples of oratory.
The future fighter for the civil rights was born in 1929, shortly before the Great Depression that struck the USA in 1930s. A considerable time span separated the birth of Martin Luther King and the legal liberation of African-Americans following Emancipation in 1865. The new status naturally inspired great hopes among people during the post-slavery reconstruction period. However, white Southerners did not share these dreams of equality and opposed steps aimed at achieving it (Ramdin 1). The Republican Party halted the implementation of its policy of granting equal rights, which also resulted in the growth of segregation that drew very specific and strict borders between white and black communities within the American society (Ramdin 2).
Growing up in the black ghetto of Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr. witnessed many manifestations of inequality and injustice that the African-American population had to face. Perhaps it is the bitterness of life that he had seen since his early days that made his speeches so powerful. He opposed racism passionately, and justified his opposition by referring to the founding documents of the nation, as well as the biblical symbols of justice and love that were understandable for simple people (Paris 1).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream” on 28 August 1963 at the March on Washington. The power of this speech is to a great extent conditioned by the fact that it appealed to simple people, avoiding complex structures or concepts and drawing on emotion and feeling. As Paris described it, “King’s speech was crafted for all who had ears to hear. It was a declaration proclaimed to America on behalf of all African peoples” (2).
All the ideas that King expresses in his speech are explained with the aid of everyday experiences and familiar concepts. Abstraction would make the things he is talking about more remote and inaccessible, reducing the persuasive power of his speech. The chosen strategy, however, has a very specific effect – it makes equality and justice almost touchable, which is likely to have increased confidence among the African-American population that these two things are possible to achieve. For example, Martin Luther King refers to justice as a type of a bank institution where the population can (or cannot) cash their checks. The checks are essentially the promises instilled into the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that every person born and living in the USA is entitled to the “Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (qtd. in King 1). In King’s vivid interpretation, the black population received a “bad check” from America, which “has come back marked “insufficient funds” (King 1).
The choice of such imagery for the description of the situation with justice for the African-American population strikes with its simplicity and comprehensibility. On one hand, Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to the basic documents that regulate the life of the American society and cites those parts which dwell on the rights of American citizens. This is done to show the audience (the black population) that the right to be free and equal is the basic thing for the American society and that it must not be questioned.
On the other hand, King employs the metaphor of the “bank of justice” to show the people how their basic rights have been abused. It is a common situation that a bank refuses to cash a check on some ground. Therefore, simple people are able to assess the situation from a more concrete perspective. King adds then: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt” (1). This is the point where the purpose of the speech becomes apparent. By saying “we” the speaker shows that the dream he is talking about is not his personal wish; it is a dream that he has for his whole community, for millions of people, and that his dream is a combination of millions of dreams, hopes and prayers. The speaker’s aim is to make it clear for every African-American that this dream is not fantastic at all. The dream of equality and justice for people who live in his country is an attainable thing, as specific and down-to-earth as cashing a check in a bank. All black people have the right to live a dignified life without humiliation and violence, as this right is granted to them by America itself and God.
Martin Luther King employs a wide variety of instruments to convey his ideas to the audience. Apart from the abovementioned metaphor of the “bank of justice”, there are many more other metaphorical representations of the situation that the black population had to face then, as well as of the ideas of equality and justice. The period of slavery is viewed as burning fire consuming the lives and hopes of people, who “had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” (King 1). The symbol of the all-absorbing fire is impressive and frightening; it demonstrates that no person in the world should ever experience the grief and torment that Negro slaves had to live through. Referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, King calls it “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their [slaves’] captivity” (1). This metaphor is very eloquent, as it expresses several ideas simultaneously. First of all, the contrast between the dark night of slavery and the first rays of light to indicate the end of the shameful epoch is another powerful image that people of any age, background and social standing can understand. However, daybreak is not morning; it is a long way from the first signs of dawn to the bright sun of the day, and King is fully aware of that. He also wants his audience to understand that there is a long way that they have to cover to make the dream of “justice for all” come true. When describing the situation in 1963, he mentions “manacles of segregation” and “chains of discrimination”, suggesting that though freedom from slavery was legally proclaimed a hundred years before, the black people are in no way free. King keeps stressing that success is only possible if people commit themselves fully to the dream of equality: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning” (King 1).
Martin Luther King also makes an appeal to the emotions of his listeners by saying that “one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King 1). Apart from stressing the poor condition of the black people’s lives, the speaker also talks about solitude. When picturing a lonely island in an ocean, the audience might have the feeling of isolation and restriction, which were also inescapable effects of social segregation.
However, even with the excellent choice of imagery for the metaphoric representation of the trials and tribulations of the black people, the audience needs specific facts and examples that would appeal exactly to their sad experiences. Naturally, King presents these examples:
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the very 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 Negro’s 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 white only”” (King 2).
These are basic situations where the black population was humiliated on a daily basis. Abuse from the police, inability to use facilities for whites, crippling the future of black children by indoctrinating them with their own inferiority were but several examples, and every listener could extend the list in his/her head. A most powerful idea that King expresses with a short sentence works according to the same principle: “[…] go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed” (King 2). This idea is a small seed of a great belief that gets rooted in the minds of the black people listening to King, and his belief is that they deserve justice, they have the right to it, they have had enough suffering and are not satisfied with tolerating it any longer. Their dreams can come true.
King’s speech is organized in such a way that the audience is constantly reminded that the whole thing is not about revenge or concentrating on the painful past. King keeps repeating the phrase “I have a dream” throughout the whole speech, which creates the urge to look ahead, into the future, where this dream has come true. Returning to the metaphor of night and day contrasted, King starts the speech with the description of night times, then dwells on the description of the dawn and coming morning. Morning is the present, and its importance is self-evident – there is no day without it. The speech ends with a vivid and colorful description of what this all-American day of social equality might be like. The idea of non-violent resistance is consistent with this perspective, as violence is hardly compatible with the concepts of light and sun. In other words, King ends his speech optimistically, leaving his audience with the feelings of hope and inspiration.
Overall, a variety of factors contributed to the success of King’s speech. It was a timely reaction to the needs of the black community that needed inspiration and hope. It also described the things that were familiar to the people with words and imagery that were comprehensible to them. It managed to express the idea of justice and equality as being not some abstract entities that one cannot grasp, but specific situations and concepts, which created the feeling that they were possible to achieve after all.
King, Marin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream. Address delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 28 August 1963, Washington, DC. PBS.org. Web. 28 April 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/english/mlk_transcript.pdf>
Paris, Peter J. “King’s Vision of America. An Ethical Assessment”. I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Future of Multicultural America. Ed. James Echols. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004. 1-12. Print.
Ramdin, Ron. Martin Luther King, Jr. London: Haus Publishing Limited, 2004. Print.