Discourse analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech

1 Dec

The 1960’s are known for its revolutions and exploitations of human ideals; from the sexual revolution to freedom of expression and human rights movements the time marked a change. It was then when still after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that the black population of America suffered with racism, it was in these years that hate crimes and false segregation laws rose and blacks where cornered.

Dr. Luther King Jr. thought differently and became the voice of the voiceless; his speech entitled “I Have a Dream” makes a subtle but firm statement, almost prophet like, about things to come. History in the making was at the time, Dr. King knew what the people wanted, he lived like them, and that made him empowered to speak about all the injustice going on, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” (Luther King, 1963) Was his opening sentence, “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”, empowering, confirming and nailing the public’s attention and expectations about the day, it’s all about the masses and making revolution. Paul Gee in his book “An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method” talks about building an identity, talking “right”, Dr. King was the right man to make this speech, his identity clearly was “right” for the moment.

Now, the environment in which it was taking course; Washington D.C., Lincoln Memorial, a huge mass of blacks crying out for freedom in the steps of the deliberator, it was mayhem waiting to burst. Dr. King, sober, no signs of anger in face, no fists held high, just him and the stage, the crowd silently started to hear his opening statement and went nuts in applause, why? “in the history of our nation” is the key detonator, they where a part of history as of now, the past didn’t matter anymore, it was the tomorrow that they longed for , the new tomorrow.

Making an identity was important so that Dr. King’s speech could get a good response from his audience; the speech uses the word “Negro” this tells us that he hasn’t forgotten about his audience’s feelings, their background, his language is surely made to give a breath of faith to those who didn’t have it at the time, remembering that still there where many battles to fight, that their struggles wouldn’t end at the very next day of this groundbreaking speech, and he remarks it:

“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” (Luther King, 1963)   

Yet after the “And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights” he cleverly manages to keep a positive message and not get mal-interpreted by saying a few lines after; “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” (Luther King, 1963), Dr. King really had a vision; he would lead the thoughts of the people around him not by rioting against those who made wrong to them, but by stating that their unity would set them free.  Decades later there is still a fight, but there are people that share Dr. King’s dream and will keep fighting for freedom.


Luther King, D. M. (1963, August 28). “I Have a Dream”. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from American Rethoric: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm


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