The Rhetoric of Dreams: I.A. Richards, Martin Luther King, and the American Civil Rights Movement

For I.A. Richards, language is not simply a “signaling system” or “code” acting as an appendage to experience, but rather a vital “instrument” constitutive of experience that structures the reality in which we live (Nichols 129).  Since two individuals can never share the exact same experiences in life, they must use language as a tool for discovering similar enough experiences that communication becomes possible.  It is in this process of discovery, this search for the proper sign(s) that will recall key previous experiences for all parties engaged in conversation, that language serves both its social and its existential ends.  Yet in some cases, such as in the civil rights rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the disparity between the speaker’s experience and that of his/her auditors spans too wide a chasm to be bridged in literal comparisons; the only similarities of consequence must be drawn out in the language of metaphor.  In drawing these similarities throughout his “I Have a Dream” speech, King aims not only to seek a common ground with his immediate audience, but also to use metaphor in constructing a new reality for 1960s America—a reality in which not taking action to redress the civil rights situation is unnatural, un-American, immoral, and impious.

 In Richards’ theory, the key to communication lies not in exceptional speaking skills or expert showmanship, but in “the extent to which one may make use of past similarities in experience” (132).  King’s special problem in August of 1963, then, is to find similarities in the experiences of both white and black Americans that will open the doors to a more egalitarian society, and his speech relies on four basic categories of metaphor to achieve these ends: (1) natural; (2) patriotic; (3) moral; and (4) religious. Within each category, King utilizes Richards’ tenor-vehicle structure to connect contemporary racial oppression with timeless images from the collective American conscious.  Thus, we see him connect the tenors of “poverty” and “material prosperity” with the vehicles of “a lonely island” and “a vast ocean” (Category 1).  He references the “symbolic shadow” of President Lincoln (Category 2) and the “palace of justice” (Category 3) as reminders of the day’s hallowed setting, and then connects his own dream with “the American dream” (Cat. 2) to suggest its universal benefit to all Americans.  He drives this point home with remarks on “brotherhood” four times (Cat. 3) and the patriotic refrain “let freedom ring” at least nine times (Cat. 2), all the while imbuing his speech with the religious symbolism of “the valley of despair” (Cat. 4).  In each of these examples, King uses the richness of metaphor to bypass any essential differences between white and black experiences of America at this time, thereby enabling a common understanding of “the fierce urgency of now” and the types of action such urgency might entail.  As Sonja Foss explains in Chapter 8 of Rhetorical Criticism, “Whatever metaphor is used to label and experience a phenomenon, then, suggests evaluations of it and appropriate behavior in response” (270).  The rhetorical function of metaphor in King’s speech is to highlight certain common past experiences that suggest only one appropriate response: granting civil rights to all American citizens.

 So long as we accept King’s metaphorical construction of reality, we must act accordingly; if we choose instead to maintain the status quo (as many Americans at the time wished to do), then we must either reject the metaphors or reject the actions they entail.  But by the sheer rhetorical force of his repetition, patterning, and imagery, King makes it nearly impossible to reject his metaphors, thereby limiting the avenues for resisting change.  In so doing, King is able to remain true to the mission of the civil rights movement, which found its surest footing in nonviolent resistance and the wearing down of racist opposition to equality.  King employs Richards’ theories of language and metaphor not to advocate for the violent overthrow of government, but instead to pursue the deliberate, painstaking elimination of any rational conception of an America that continued to deny people of color equal protection under its laws.  In consistently allying tenors of racial oppression and injustice with broadly recognized vehicles of natural, patriotic, moral, and religious origin, King effectively bridges the gap between white and black citizens’ experiences of America and creates a unified experience from which a new, more democratic nation can finally emerge.

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