What Martin Luther King, Jr. Can Teach Us About Creative Power Writing

MLK's "I Have a Dream"
Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaims, “I Have a Dream”

A Dream of Peace

After the recent horrific terrorist attacks, it’s comforting to remember someone who advocated change without assassinating cartoonists or eradicating entire towns. We celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday. King was electrifying, and as a speaker he drew on his experience as a charismatic preacher. He also pulled from an enormous stock of rhetorical devices to add even more creative power and evoke emotion. His now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., employed dozens of these, including charged words (last week’s topic!). 

in Behind the Dream, King’s speechwriter Clarence C. Jones writes that King actually delivered only about the first half of his remarks as prepared. Then, Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell’em about the ‘dream.’” For the rest of his speech, King improvised, drawing heavily from the “I have a dream” language he had used earlier in lesser speeches.

Read and Listen

For your edification and in honor of Dr. King, I’d like to identify some of his creative power techniques. I’ve excerpted the improvised portion of “I Have a Dream” below, but you can read or listen to the full speech here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

In fact, I recommend listening to the speech to be mesmerized by King’s rhythms and cadences (I didn’t mark these in my annotations).

My Analysis

Below is my annotated version of the excerpt. Don’t let it overwhelm you. The takeaway is how many—and the variety of—techniques employed. I’m sure I missed some and misidentified a few. In some cases, I only marked the first instance of a technique, identifying it further through highlighting, bold, or italics.

In case you don’t know some of these techniques (I didn’t!), you can find a list of rhetorical techniques, definitions and examples here: http://literarydevices.net

Some of the techniques I noted are not, technically, rhetorical techniques; I’ve defined them following the excerpt.

Annotated Excerpt from “I Have a Dream,” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let us YOU/WE not SYNTAX wallow CHARGED WORD in the valley of despair, PATHOS I say to you today, /d/ CONSONANCE my friends. PERSONAL

And so even PLEONASM though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, HUMILITY I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted IMAGERY; METAPHOR in the American dream. ALLUSION; ANTANACLASIS; EPISTROPHE

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

I have a dream that one day ANAPHORA on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit /s/ & /z/ ASSONANCE down together at the table of brotherhood. IMAGERY; METAPHOR; STORY OF 1/STORY OF MANY

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. METAPHOR; CONTRAST

I have a dream that my four little PLEONASM children will one day live HYPERBATON in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. STORY OF 1/MANY; CONTRAST

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious EPITHET racists, with its governor ALLUSION having his lips dripping with the words METAPHOR of “interposition” and “nullification” QUOTATION— one day right PLEONASM 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. IMAGERY; PATHOS; STORY OF 1/MANY

I have a dream today!

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 EPITHET places will be made straight; PARALLELISM; JUXTAPOSITION “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh SYNECHDOCHE shall see it together.” POLYSYNDETON; QUOTATION; RULE OF THREE

This is our hope, and this is the faith that PLEONASM I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. METAPHOR With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords EPITHET of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. METAPHOR 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, EPIPHORA knowing that PLEONASM we will be free one day. ASYNDETON

And this will be the daythis will be the day when PLEONASM 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! QUOTATION; PATHOS

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty EPITHET mountains ALLITERATION of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous EPITHET slopes of California. IMAGERY

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. QUOTATION
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. ACCUMULATION; CLIMACTIC BUILDUP
From every mountainside, let freedom ring. PARAPHRASE

And when this happens, and 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, PARALLELISM; RULE OF THREE will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! EPIZEUXIS; QUOTATION
Thank God Almighty, ALLUSION we are free at last! INDUCTION/EPISTROPHE; DENOUEMENT


More Techniques

YOU/WE: Letting the audience know it’s not about “I,” but “you/you’re/your” and “we/us/our”

STORY OF 1/STORY OF MANY: Translating a larger phenomenon into smaller, visible, relatable experiences

PERSONAL: Speaking directly to the audience

QUOTATION: Quoting a person or book passage

RULE OF THREE: Making a point using words or phrases in threes; e.g., “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics

Now go use your creative power!

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