The Use of Anaphora
Politicians and political figures often use a rhetorical device called anaphora in speeches to emphasise their points. One of the most famous anaphora examples comes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” 1963 speech. Dr King used it to highlight the difference between how things were and how he hoped they would become if his dream came true. Anaphora is often favoured by poets and it’s why MLK Jr.’s speech lives among the greatest speeches of all time.
Dr King used the anaphoral phrase, “I have a dream,” to start eight consecutive sentences. Rather than take excerpts for you to read, which risk losing the overall meaning of the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on 28th August 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you can tune in and watch the whole proceedings here.
Every third Monday in January since 1986, the US has observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The national holiday honours a man who was both an inspirational civil rights activist during the 1960s and one of the greatest orators of our time. He wrote five books during his lifetime and, at one point, was estimated to deliver up to 450 speeches a year. Tragically, he was assassinated on 4th April 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
The March on Washington
28th August 1963 – on that historic day, a quarter of a million people came to the US nation’s capital to petition their duly elected government in a demonstration known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Frustrated by the inaction of a gridlocked Congress, the marchers called for Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill.
The Center for Legislative Archives records that in newspapers and congressional debate leading up to the March, opponents in Congress denounced the demonstrators as “unwitting followers” of their “communist” leaders. They argued that the March should be prohibited as an “illegal assembly” and predicted street violence. Their fears proved unfounded, and the March proceeded calmly and peacefully. Many of the addresses were memorable — especially Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech —but the March on Washington’s truly historical and most emotionally powerful aspect was the demonstrators’ peaceful participation.
Close-up of some leaders of the March on Washington walking along Constitution Avenue: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. — marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial
Attribution: Rowland Scherman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Civil_Rights_March_on_Washington%2C_D.C._%28Leaders_marching_from_the_Washington_Monument_to_the_Lincoln_Memorial%29_-_NARA_-_542010.tif
What is anaphora and its purpose?
Dictionary.com says that, as a rhetorical device, anaphora is “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences, poetry stanzas, or clauses within a sentence.” Rhetorical devices—which include metaphor and hyperbole — are used to make a point when you’re speaking. Specifically, an anaphora can be as short as a single word, such as I, when, or and. It can also involve several words, as in Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s anaphoral phrase, “I have a dream.” Anaphoral phrases are rarely longer than a few words (as lengthy, repeated phrases can confuse readers and listeners). By the way, the opposite of anaphora is epistrophe, “a word or phrase repeated at the end of consecutive lines.”
The purpose of anaphora
Poets use anaphora to establish a rhythm, structure a poem, or highlight certain ideas. Some poets use extreme anaphora as a stylistic choice. “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg, does this. Almost every line in the first section starts with who. The second section repeats the name Moloch at the beginning of each line. The repetition gives the poem rhythm and makes it feel energetic.
Anaphoral phrases are often used in everyday speech. People use them to express desires or needs. A petulant child might say, “I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to get dressed. I don’t want to go to school. I just want to go back to sleep!”
Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The last four sources on page eight of this paper provide hyperlinks to extensive biographies detailing the extraordinary life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Britannica.com says:
‘…original name Michael King, Jr., (born 15th January 1929, Atlanta, Georgia, US—died 4th April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee), Baptist minister and social activist who led the civil rights movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. His leadership was fundamental to that movement’s success in ending the legal segregation of African Americans in the South and other parts of the United States.’
Dr King was awarded five honorary degrees, was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure. At age 35, he was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to further the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on 15th January 1929 as Michael King Jr. He was named after his father, Michael King, but six years later, King’s father visited Germany and learned about Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant reformation and was said to have been so inspired that he returned home and officially changed both his and his eldest son’s names to Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 until his assassination in 1968. He was arrested numerous times throughout his civil rights activism, including for his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His mother, Alberta Williams King, was assassinated in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta on 30th June 1974.
Dr King was assassinated on 4th April 1968, at the age of 39. He was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. His legacy includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr King was shot by James Earl Ray, a white supremacist and convicted criminal. The reason behind the assassination is believed to be related to Dr King’s civil rights activism and his efforts to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. Ray pleaded guilty to Dr King’s murder but later recanted his confession and claimed that he had been the victim of a government conspiracy. However, there is no credible evidence to support this claim.
“I Have a Dream”
The most famous lines of the speech are the sentences that begin with the words, “I have a dream”, but they were not in the original text. They were added as the speech was being delivered. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the shadow of Lincoln’s great statue at the 1963 March on Washington, exhorting the people gathered to be a force for justice. Perhaps, the most memorable (it is for me) of the eight sentences is this:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had an exquisite way with words. Dictionary.com selected nine words from quotes that were used in some of King’s most impassioned speeches, books, and interviews; what he meant when he used them originally and how they are still used today – it’s worthwhile and insightful.
“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.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But 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. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. 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 racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 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.
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest — quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
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 that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: I Have a Dream, at: https://youtu.be/vP4iY1TtS3s
- Book: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson, 1st January 2001, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Autobiography-Martin-Luther-King-Jr-ebook/dp/B00FOTREOM/
- Book: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Dare To Dream: The True Story of a Civil Rights Icon by Anna Revell, 15th August 2017, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/MARTIN-LUTHER-KING-JR-Rights-ebook/dp/B074TW1CGF/
- Book: Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.? by Bonnie Bader at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Who-Was-Martin-Luther-King-ebook/dp/B002DBIO66/
- Book: The Biography of Martin Luther King Jr: His Life and Legacy by Kimberly Gerald, 17th October 2021, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Biography-Martin-Luther-King-Jr/dp/B09JJ9C7SD/
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Marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday ↑
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The spelling is US-English. ↑