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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Eloquence Endures

Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.

This ringing oratory is perhaps the most enduring image we have of Martin Luther King Jr. His finale to a massive civil rights march on Washington, D.C., in 1963, was delivered before a quarter of a million people in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's statue on the National Mall. Forty-six years later, on the American holiday that honors his birth, we examine the enduring power of what's remembered as the "I Have a Dream" speech.

That address is ranked by many historians as among the greatest orations - and most profound literature - in American history, alongside President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt's "Nothing to fear but fear itself" speech during the Great Depression, and John F. Kennedy's "Ask what you can do for your country" inaugural address. Teachers and students everywhere dissect its language, cadence and rhetorical techniques.

Parts of powerful speech composed extemporaneously

Communications professor Margaret Zulick at Wake Forest University says that what makes this remarkable is that, halfway through, King completely abandoned his prepared text and never referred to it again.

"There's a spot where there's actually an incomplete sentence, which is very rare for King," she points out. "And he misses a beat."

I say to you today, my friends . . . so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow . . .

"And right after that," notes Zulick, "the next sentence is the 'I Have a Dream' part. That was extemporaneous."

King's techniques recall those of jazz musicians

I still have a dream.

This is followed by more unscripted, dramatic repetitions of the now-legendary "I Have a Dream" phrase.

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.

I have a dream.

Zulick calls these repetitions riffs.

"Jazz musicians actually practice riffs - little improvisational sections," she says. "Then when they perform, part of the improvisation is kind of mixing and matching these bits and pieces that are in their repertoire. And that's exactly what King does."

Metaphors abound in example of sublime oratory

In the first century A.D., the Roman orator Longinus described what he called sublime speechmaking. It not only perfectly fits the occasion but also lifts the audience beyond the excitement of the moment and inspires lasting change. Today many scholars lift high the "I Have a Dream" Speech as the classic example of sublime oratory.

John Adams, a professor of rhetoric at Hamilton College, says he's struck by King's lavish use of metaphors - unexpected words and ideas that create vivid images.

"It perfectly and poetically spoke to the urgency of the moment - this transcendent hope for justice and freedom. Take just the second paragraph, where he claims that the Emancipation Proclamation [declaring slaves free during the U.S. Civil War] came as a 'great beacon light of hope' to millions of people who had been 'seared in the flames of withering injustice.'"

It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

King used many light-and-dark, night-and-day analogies in the speech.

"By setting out those contrasts, you set an appetite for their resolution," says Adams.

Other examples quoted by Adams: "Manacles of segregation." "Chains of discrimination." People living on "a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

Other geographical allusions about waters and mountains and valleys abound as well.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

Adams says the entire speech, with its dream theme, is a metaphor. He says much of its power flowed from its delivery. Others may perform the speech, but none can match King's looks and gestures, rhythm and heartfelt sincerity.

Musical qualities mark address

Douglas DuBrin teaches English and history at the French International School outside Washington, D.C. He uses the "I Have a Dream" speech in his classes and has prepared Internet lesson plans on it for other teachers. DuBrin says the speech has musical qualities, including those rousing refrains.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

And later . . .

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside.

Eloquence, passion evident

DuBrin says King captured all four elements of a great speech, including eloquence.

"King had a masterful way of choosing references that would inspire the audience - the prolonged metaphors, the moments that are extended, even the pauses that he uses while the people are cheering - his ability to sort of take the moment and go beyond it," DuBrin says.

The next essential element, says DuBrin, is passion.

"Every bit of the speech seems to be from his fiber, from his heart," he says.

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

King's intellect is evident.

"King was a very learned man," DuBrin points out. "His references are ample to history, to the plight of various peoples."

'I Have a Dream' helped bridge nation's racial divide

DuBrin says the fourth ingredient of great speechmaking - persuasiveness - must be evaluated after the fact. He says the speech helped change the nation's racial landscape for the better.

While King made ample use of his skills as a hypnotic Baptist preacher - with calls to the audience and their response, dramatic pauses and lyrical references to biblical passages - Margaret Zulick at Wake Forest University says the "I Have a Dream" speech endures because it bridged the racial divide.

"He's trying to hold his own movement together," she notes. "And then he's also trying to bring the movement into the mainstream and convince white Americans that 'all we're asking for is our own share of the American dream.' The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were promissory notes for freedom and equality, 'and now we're cashing it in.'

"Very simply put, it's the idea that black Americans are Americans, and that America is not going to be America until white Americans understand that the black American tradition is their tradition."

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

Speech added momentum to civil rights movement

As King delivered his soaring "I Have a Dream" speech, Washington was half-deserted - hunkered down and anxious about what the tens of thousands of freedom marchers might do. King's forceful, yet reasoned, speech - which be began to write just four days before it was delivered - softened the nation's fear and anger and helped convince President Kennedy to begin the push for a landmark civil rights act that would end government-sponsored racial segregation in much of the land.

Kennedy would be assassinated less than three months later. And five years later - after delivering one of his last public utterances about having been to the mountaintop - King, too, would be felled by an assassin's bullet.