“I Have a Dream” speech is a good lesson in rhetoric

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is celebrated as an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement and also in the field of rhetoric.  Thanks to its national broadcast, the country became aware of his way with words to paint vivid images and stir emotions.  Who could ignore phrases such as “now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the sold rock of brotherhood,” and “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”?  Justice, an abstract concept, is made visibly concrete.  Likewise King made his invisible dream take shape in “red hills of Georgia,” “sweltering heat of injustice. . .transformed into an oasis of freedom,” “sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  His concluding crescendo repeating of “let freedom ring” added an auditory image.

Fewer people are aware of his rhetorical strategies in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, written on April 16, a few months before the famed speech in Washington, D.C.  Equally impressive, the open letter to eight Birmingham clergymen, interspersed his memorable imagery within an argumentation style.  The letter was a response to an open letter from the clergymen in they presented five reasons Dr. King should call off his organized marches in their city.  Dr. King’s letter juxtaposed each reason with his refutation.  Without imaginative language, the letter resembles a lawyer’s brief.  However, within each argument, one finds images as powerful as and similar to those in the famous speech – “injustice anything is a threat to justice everywhere,” “create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,” [the request to wait] “has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration,” and “like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be likewise exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

While I am always moved by the Dream speech, I admire the Letter for its combination of reasoning and art.

About Dr. Cathy Ayers

Dr. Cathy Ayers is a retired professor of communications.

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