This post is as an exemplar for students analyzing how great orators use rhetorical devices to convey meaning and maximize emotional impact.
Throughout his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. uses several rhetorical devices to increase the emotional power of his words, both highlighting the sad divisions in our country and imagining the bright unity of its future.
One of the main devices King uses in his speech is antithesis, the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure. The first way King uses this technique is in showing the sheer audacity of his dream, unifying a country that has been so violently divided: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” (par. 19).
In this statement, the “sons of former slaves” and “the sons of former slave owners” are the antithetical elements that no one but a visionary like King could imagine experiencing “brotherhood.”
A second way King uses antithesis is to describe the complete reversal of race relations that he envisions occurring in the United States: “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” (par. 20). Here, Mississippi, described in the present as a place of hellish oppression, is imagined as a future “oasis.”
Yet another example of this use of antithesis is found in the next paragraph, where King states, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (par. 21). In this statement, the antithetical elements are the opposite ways of evaluating someone: the first based on external characteristics (“the color of their skin”), the second based on the internal characteristics (“the content of their character”).
Through the effective use of antithesis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shows both how a profoundly divided country can be unified, as well as how a profoundly flawed country can and must be changed.
King, Martin Luther. "I Have a Dream Speech." Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech - American Rhetoric. Web. 31 Dec. 2014. <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm>.