“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (paragraph 3).
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” (paragraph 6).
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” (paragraph 8).
“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” (paragraph 15).
Alliteration. Repeating the same consonant sound can make a phrase memorable, as when Dr. King envisions his children not being judged “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (paragraph 16). He also speaks of “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” (paragraph 6), “dignity and discipline” (paragraph 8), and the “mighty mountains” of New York (paragraph 24).
Repetition. Dramatically repeating words or phrases is one of the most powerful tools of oratory. In paragraph 3, Dr. King uses the phrase “one hundred years later” four times. In paragraph 6, speaking of “the fierce urgency of now,” he begins four straight sentences with “now.” In paragraph 10, he says the word “satisfied” eight times. In paragraph 12, his exhortation “go back” is spoken six times (in paragraphs 13-20). The word “faith” is mentioned four times in paragraph 21. The plea to “let freedom ring” is voiced ten times (paragraphs 23-27).
Parallel Structure. Using parallel grammatical forms, such as a series of infinitives or prepositional phrases, enhances clarity and helps make a sentence memorable. In paragraph 21, Dr. King uses a series of infinitive phrases: “to work together, to pray together, to struggle
together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together.”
Sentence Variety. A medley of long sentences interspersed with short sentences is more pleasing to the ear than a string of long sentences or a string of short sentences. Paragraphs 16 through 20 show a nice balance.
Analogy. An analogy is a comparison that clarifies or explains one thing by likening it to something more familiar. Paragraphs 4 and 5 create an analogy between a bad check (one that comes back marked “insufficient funds”) and the denial of freedom to blacks who were promised by the nation’s sacred documents “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
Example. For the benefit of white listeners, Dr. King cites some specific examples of discrimination: “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 can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.’ We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote” (paragraph 10).
Inspiring Conclusion. Safire comments: “On occasion, a speaker can take the audience to the mountaintop and point to his vision of America. In his unforgettable peroration, Dr. King took the ‘Let freedom ring’ phrase from his recitation of the patriotic “My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ lyric, took it up to the mountain ranges of five specific states, and capped it with the words from the Negro spiritual, familiar only to the audience at the Mall, but soon familiar to all Americans, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
© 2008, 2005 by Hamilton Gregory—may be reproduced for classroom use with
Public Speaking for College & Career (McGraw-Hill)