'I Have a Dream': Context, Imagery, Cadence Made Speech Great

Released: 22-Jul-2008 4:20 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Rowan University
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Newswise — August 28, 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before 200,000 people, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It was, says Rowan University communication studies professor Dan Schowalter, "as near perfect a rhetorical event as you can have."

In effect, the march for Civil Rights 45 years ago was "set up as a rock concert," says Schowalter, who has taught the speech more than 30 times in his classes.

"Bob Dylan was there. Joan Baez was there. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was the headliner," Schowalter says. "He had a rock star persona. There was a real chemistry between King and the audience."

Delivered at a time when America was open to such a speech—1953 would have been too early, 1973, too late, Schowalter maintains—King's message is great both technically and ideologically, he says.

"In terms of delivery, it's sermonic in style," says Schowalter. "There's a cadence to the speech. And when he gets to the 'I have a dream' passages, he quits looking at his notes. It's as though he's speaking right from his heart."

The speech uses over 60 metaphors, including those about water and currency, and alludes to passages in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bible, according to Schowalter.

And while other activists of the time, such as Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, spoke about the need for a revolution for Civil Rights, King effectively talks about his "dream," Schowalter notes.

"The fact that he called it a dream makes it less threatening," says Schowalter. "King's dream is the American dream. His speech is essentially the story of being able to achieve, to sit at the table of brotherhood. It's a familiar story."

Throughout the speech, King deftly repeats key phrases, including "Let freedom ring" and "I have a dream." In his classes, Schowalter uses the speech to demonstrate to his students how the use of repetition works in effective public speaking, but doesn't always work in writing.

"In writing, we'd call it redundant. But in the speech, the repetition is central to its success," says Schowalter. "Still, you have to do it right to make it work."

The venue for the speech, with the 19-foot-high visage of Lincoln facing the crowd, is another reason for its success, according to Schowalter. The march was orchestrated to make lawmakers and citizens aware of the suffering of the nation's African Americans as they fought for Civil Rights.

"I don't think you can get any more poignant than staging the speech at the Lincoln Memorial," says Schowalter. "When you have great moments of rhetoric, it's a confluence of context, of the setting, of the imagery of the speech."

"I have a dream" also is relatively short. It comes in at just over 16 minutes, demonstrating that less is, indeed, more when it comes to effective oration, according to Schowalter.

"(Barack) Obama's recent speech on race was brilliant," says Schowalter. "But it was 45 minutes long."


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