In “I Have a Dream”, Martin Luther King Jr. extensively uses repetitions, metaphors, and allusions. Other rhetorical devices that you should note are antithesis, direct address, and enumeration.
Rhetorical devices are language tools used to make speakers’ arguments both appealing and memorable. Note that there is often an overlap between devices labelled as rhetorical and devices labelled as stylistic. Imagery is just one example - in this guide, we have decided to place imagery under rhetorical devices.
MLK’s speech includes several historical, religious, and cultural allusions. An allusion is a reference to an event, a person, media, or literature outside of the text that the speaker finds relevant for the topic and purpose of his speech.
For example, King alludes to Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation which officially ended slavery: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”. Note that this allusion is further emphasized by the setting of Martin Luther King’s speech, which is made outside the Capitol (the seat of American government). The building contains a large statue of Abraham Lincoln, which can be seen in the video.
Furthermore, the speaker also alludes to the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence: “the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ ”; “ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
These allusions are meant to remind the audience that, officially, African Americans should have the same rights as white Americans. The same idea is strengthened by explicitly mentioning the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which both claim that Americans have the right to freedom: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence…”
Such historical references are meant to create ethos, giving the speaker and his arguments authority and credibility.
Later, MLK alludes to the concept of the American Dream – “I still have a dream. It is a ...