Imagery in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting in the White House.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting in the White House. | Source

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In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, he describes a world in which Americans of all racial backgrounds live in harmony with total equality and freedom. He gave this speech in 1963 to over 200,000 people in Washington D.C. One significant feature of his speech is the imagery used throughout to depict both the hardships African Americans have faced and also the future they hope to achieve. King uses vivid nature imagery in order to allow the masses to understand and relate to his ideas in a simple, yet effective way.

King’s imagery focuses on two categories in his imagery: landscape and time. He encourages African Americans to be discontent with the inequalities they face and to push for more freedom: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice; now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (King 103). Valleys typically symbolize as a low point out of which it is difficult to escape. The sun symbolizes enlightenment and a bright future in which all people are equal. In addition, quicksand symbolizes a trap from which it is hard to rise, while the “solid rock of brotherhood” is a dependable and stable goal toward which they strive. King not only addresses the struggles which lie before them, but he also illustrates the future rewards of their efforts: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (King 104). Water is used as a rejuvenating and cleansing image, which is appropriate when depicting a civil rights revolution, as the hope is that people will shed their prejudices and racism for a more sophisticated and compassionate stance. Time is also used in King’s imagery, such as when he demands that civil rights activists not be satisfied until equality is achieved: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality” (King 103). By referencing the seasons and their qualities in his speech, King is comparing the unrelenting and unpleasant summer sun to the oppression that the African Americans face. He contrasts that with the merciful, welcomed relief that autumn brings, which is similar to the feelings that would come with true freedom. All of these images utilize natural structures and attributes to support King’s main idea that African Americans should have full equality.

By using nature imagery in his speech, King is setting himself up for success. Studies show that African Americans, on average, tend to be less educated than Caucasians in America. Rather than using fancy rhetoric, King sticks to basic images and symbols with which even the most uneducated follower can relate. Most of his images, even the ones regarding time, include some physical, natural aspect which every person has experienced, be it darkness, water, or summer heat. This makes his speech easily accessible and very comprehensible, which works in his favor to gain support. His tactics of using universal symbols also make it more likely for Caucasians to join him in the civil rights movement because they, too, can relate to the images he describes. In this way, King is able to garner support from as many people as possible through his eloquent nature imagery, making his “I Have a Dream” speech one of the most successful and illustrious speeches of all time.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream”. Writings and Speeches That Changed the World. Ed. James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

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ReverieMarie profile image

ReverieMarie 24 months ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama Author

@RonElFran - Thank you for the insightful comment! That is something I never considered, but is very interesting! I will definitely have to go back through his speeches and look for more examples of that.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Much of Dr. King's imagery is taken more or less directly from the Bible. For example, "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” is a direct quote of Amos 5:24. And in "the solid rock of brotherhood” many in his audience would hear echoes of "On Christ the solid Rock I stand." In my opinion, Dr. King's us of implicit and explicit biblical allusions made his speeches and sermons uniquely powerful because most of his listeners were biblically literate, and recognized, understood, and identified with those references.

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