The speech is a rich feast of oratorical strategies and stylistic devices, including the following:
Organization. The speech has a three-part structure. Dr. King begins with a look at the past (slavery), dwells on the present (discrimination and violence), and then closes with a vision of the future (his dream of freedom for all Americans). Using the past-present-future organizational pattern is a brilliant literary device because it repeats the structure that Abraham Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address. Thus Dr. King underscores the historical parallels: Lincoln stood at a national place of honor (the Gettysburg battlefield) to inspire the Union to press forward in its quest to end slavery so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Dr. King is standing at a national place of honor—the Lincoln Memorial—to inspire the nation to finish the task of liberation that Lincoln had begun. (Incidentally, Dr. King creates parallels with the Gettysburg Address throughout his speech; for example, Lincoln began by saying, “Four score and seven years ago…” Dr. King begins his second paragraph with “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”)
Opener. The first paragraph conveys Dr. King’s appreciation to the marchers for coming to Washington for “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Although the paragraph strikes some students as rather ordinary, it serves the valuable purpose of letting the audience get into the flow of the speech.
Building credibility. Before he stepped to the platform, Dr. King had a tremendously high level of credibility with his black listeners. They knew that he was trustworthy, and that his dedication to the cause was deep and abiding. They knew that he had been beaten and jailed for his beliefs, yet courageously continued to preach a message of hope and love instead of despair and hate. With these listeners, it was unnecessary to spend any part of the speech
in building credibility. Many whites, on the other hand, viewed the civil rights movement with suspicion, fearful that it could rouse blacks to violence and anarchy. It was important, therefore, for Dr. King to reveal his reasonableness to the millions of whites listening to him on TV. He needed to show that he was not a demagogue fomenting hatred and bloodshed. In paragraph 8, he demonstrates his reasonableness by insisting that the civil rights movement must not “degenerate into physical violence,” and by noting, in paragraph 9, that the destinies of white and black Americans are inextricably tied together—“we cannot walk alone.”
Appeals to Authority. Dr. King heightens his persuasiveness by basing his case on the revered documents of American history—The Emancipation Proclamation (paragraph 2), the Constitution (paragraph 4), and the Declaration of Independence (paragraph 4)—and on the lyrics of the patriotic song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (paragraph 23). While appealing to Americans’ professed love of liberty and justice, he also bases his case on what he believes is the will of God. He mentions the word “faith” four times in paragraph 21, and he speaks several times of “all of God’s children” (paragraphs 6, 22, and 27). Many of his most eloquent passages are paraphrases of Scripture (for instance, paragraph 20 echoes Isaiah 40:4), a fact well known to the many listeners who were well-versed in the Bible.
Imagery. Some of the most powerful parts of the speech are word pictures that are vividly painted. Here are just a few samples.
“The Emancipation Proclamation…came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” (paragraph 2).
“The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” (paragraph 3).
© 2008, 2005 by Hamilton Gregory—may be reproduced for classroom use with
Public Speaking for College & Career (McGraw-Hill)