Monthly Archives: August 2013

Metaphors of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

This coming Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from August 28th, 1963.  The speech was the high point of the march on Washington attended by approximately 300,000 people, intended to improve civil rights for blacks and minorities in the United States.   Dr. King’s speech and the march spurred the U.S. Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

blog - MLK - photo

Now recognized as one of the most powerful speeches of the 20th century, Dr. King’s speech was a masterpiece of political rhetoric.  For the past few days, historians and television pundits have been analyzing the importance of the speech and the march.  I would like to add a brief analysis of the metaphors used in the speech.  Dr. King was not only academically trained – he earned a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University – he was also a Baptist minister.  His education, along with his skills as a preacher, helped him become one of the most gifted orators of modern times.   He was also a master of using metaphors to make a point in his speeches.  The “I Have a Dream” speech is a “goldmine” of metaphors.  I will break down some of his most important metaphors into semantic categories such as banking, food and drink, buildings, music and nature.  I will highlight the metaphors with boldface and italic type.


One of the most explicit metaphors he uses to make his point about the lack of civil rights is a banking metaphor.  He suggests that the thousands of marchers have come to Washington to cash a check  while he claims that the government has given the people of color a check with insufficient funds, or a promissory note that no one has paid.

An actual check made out to Thomas Jefferson...
An actual check made out to Thomas Jefferson…

“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 which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

Food and Drink

We are all familiar with the experience of eating and drinking.  Dr. King uses metaphors of drinking in several instances to correlate drinking a liquid to drinking attitudes or opinions.  Dr. King suggests:

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

Later he uses a complex metaphor comparing a liquid to political actions, speaking of George Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time who was a strong proponent of segregation.

“I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”


The idea of entering a building is used metaphorically to indicate progress being made toward a certain goal.  We often speak of having doors of opportunities or crossing a threshold to reach a new goal.  Dr. King uses both of these metaphors to describe the work necessary to make progress on civil rights in the United States.  Dr. King also makes a comparison of the differences in civil rights to the differences of a normal house compared to a palace.

“Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”

“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice.”


By far the most common metaphors used in the speech are those of nature.  Dr. King uses metaphors of mountains, valleys, deserts, oases, stones, solid rocks, quicksand, islands, oceans, waters, streams, wind, whirlwinds, and storms.

Dr. King describes an America almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation:

“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

He compares the differences in civil rights to the differences in light and shadows between a valley and a mountaintop.

“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

blog - MLK - mountain

“Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

In another visually powerful metaphor, he compares injustice to being a desert while justice is an oasis of water.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

blog - MLK - oasis

He also describes justice as being solid rock while injustice is quicksand.

“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

In a very powerful metaphor, he describes justice as water in a mighty river.

“We can never 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.”

blog - MLK - river rapids

He offers his support for the thousands of marchers who experienced discrimination first hand in their own lives by comparing this discrimination to strong windstorms.

“Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”

Dr. King also uses contrasts from nature based on light and dark and different seasons of the year.

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand 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 captivity.”

“This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

Music and Sounds

The final set of metaphors that Dr. King uses in the speech is related to music and sounds.  After spending most of the speech using visual metaphors, he adds a few based on auditory metaphors of sounds and music.

“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.”

More importantly, he finishes the speech with a powerful metaphor of a bell ringing, borrowing a phrase, “let freedom ring” from the national song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  We normally associate the ringing of bells with churches, but they have also been used historically in towns to signal emergencies or celebrations. In the song, and in Dr. King’s speech, the ringing of the bells is meant to signify the echoing of the sounds all across the country. In a rhetorical style common to Baptist preaching, he repeats the phrase many times for effect, in fact, a total of twelve times.

blog - MLK - Liberty_Bell_2008

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to 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!””

You can read the entire text of the speech at or view the speech at  It is moving to watch the speech after all these years.  Watch how the audience reacts to some of his phrases.  Note too that he reads from his notes for the first part of the speech but then does the last five minutes from memory as he gets more and more inspired.  Pretty amazing!

Comments and questions are welcome!

Update!  Update!  Update!

I have a second analysis of this famous speech in another post – Martin Luther King’s “Dream” Speech, Part 2.  Please read this post as well to complete your research.

Next time:  More on metaphors of sounds


Mired in gridlock – Metaphors of swamps

We often hear that politicians are mired in gridlock in Washington.  We probably don’t give this phrase another thought, but it is actually a strange metaphor, comparing the lack of progress in negotiations to the slowness of moving through mud or swampland.  As I have noted many times in this blog, it is common for English speakers to create metaphors based on personal experience.  Although we may not have all had the frustration of walking through a swamp, we can easily understand the difficulty of walking through mud after a hard rain.  Here a few political metaphors based on swamps.

blog - mired - swamp


Many areas of the earth are covered in a mixture of water and soil in areas known as swamps, bogs, marshes or wetlands.  Some of these terms are used metaphorically to indicate the difficulty in getting out of complicated situations.  In one case, we say we are swamped with work if we cannot keep up with all the tasks that we are required to do at a certain time.

Example:  In July 2011, President Obama asked Americans to call their members of Congress if they wanted to make a suggestion on how to reduce the national deficit.  As a result, the phones of many Senators and Congresspersons were swamped with calls for several days.

bogged down

A bog is a type of marsh, a large area covered in water that is difficult to cross.  In a similar sense, a person who cannot make good progress in a situation may be described as being bogged down. 

Example:  Much to the dismay of American voters, progress in Congress is often bogged down by disagreements between Democrats and Republicans.


A mire is another word for bog or swamp.  Metaphorically, a person who is mired in something cannot make progress in a certain situation.

Example:  American politics is commonly mired in ideological differences between liberals and conservatives.


A quagmire is another old world meaning a bog or marsh.  In common terms, a quagmire is any difficult situation that is almost impossible to get out of.

Soldiers from 25th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, recover a tractor trailer from a mire pit during the Vehicle Recovery Course Sept. 28, 2011, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The training is designed to challenge unit mechanics and prepare them for rainy season conditions in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of 125th Stryker Brigade Combat Team) -
Soldiers from 25th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, recover a tractor trailer from a mire pit during the Vehicle Recovery Course Sept. 28, 2011, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The training is designed to challenge unit mechanics and prepare them for rainy season conditions in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of 125th Stryker Brigade Combat Team) –

Example:  After the difficulties during the War in Vietnam, many Americans felt in 2003 that the War in Iraq would be another quagmire that would cost millions of dollars and many lives.


Quicksand is an especially dangerous mixture of water and sand that traps a person.  The more one moves to get out, the more trapped one becomes.  People die every year from being trapped in quicksand.  Metaphorically, quicksand refers to any situation that looks safe but is actually a trap or a dangerous situation that one cannot escape from easily.

Example:  During the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that sprang up in 2011, most Americans were against any military involvement in those areas claiming it would be quicksand for our troops.


Next time:  Metaphors from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

Sharp Tones: Metaphors of Tools in Political Rhetoric

A recent New York Times article described the ads used in the political campaigns in New York state.  One section details how language becomes sharpened when ads turn negative:

“The sharpening of the discourse among the candidates comes after several weeks during which many of them have complained that coverage of two scandal-tarred candidates — Mr. Spitzer, in the comptroller’s race, and Anthony D. Weiner, in the mayor’s race — has overshadowed other campaigns and issues.”

We commonly use our experiences with tools to metaphorically describe language and actions in politics.  Politicians talk of sharpening skills, honing messages and shaving points off of an opponent’s lead in the polls.  Here are a few more examples of how sharp tools lead to political metaphors.

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sharp eye, sharp tone, sharp reminder

Cutting tools must be sharpened periodically so that they always cut well.  The notion of a sharp cutting tool is used metaphorically to indicate anything that is accurate or exact.  People can have a sharp eye, speak with a sharp tone or have a sharp reminder by an unexpected important.

Example:  The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were a sharp reminder that the world is still a dangerous place.


The adverbial form of sharp, sharply, is also used metaphorically to indicate any action that is quick and severe.  It is usually used to describe a large increase or decrease in money or some other numerical value.

Example:  Conservatives argue that reducing government spending will sharply reduce the budget deficit in the next ten years.

sharply divided

Another sense of an action done sharply is the sense of opinions being extremely divided into two opposing groups.  In these cases, we may say that the opinions are sharply divided.

Example:  Democrats and Republicans have sharply divided opinions on how much wealthy Americans should be taxed.

sharpen the message

The physical act of sharpening a tool is also used in many English metaphors.  For example, to sharpen a message means to make it more exact and focused on a particular audience.

Example:  During a political campaign, candidates often sharpen their messages to make sure they are winning the votes they need to win the election.


Sharpening a knife or axe using a special stone called a whetstone is known as honing. Figuratively, to hone something means to make it more perfect.

Example:  Politicians can hone their speaking skills on the campaign trail as they give hundreds of speeches around the country.

blog - tools - axe


Razors are used for trimming and shaving hair and beards.  The shaving done by their sharp blades leads to metaphors of cutting small amounts of something from a larger whole.

Example:  A losing candidate would most likely want to shave a few points off his or her opponent’s lead in the polls before the election.

blunt spoken

The opposite of sharp is blunt.  Figuratively, something that is blunt is not very precise or sophisticated.  In one phrase, a person that is blunt spoken speaks in simple, direct language that may be offensive to some people.

Example:  Vice-President Joe Biden is known for being blunt spoken while giving speeches.

blunt instrument

A sharp instrument usually makes a clean cut in wood, metal or cloth.  A blunt instrument can make cause a lot of damage to the material.  Metaphorically, any action that is not sensitive or causes damage may be called a blunt instrument.

Example:  Laying off thousands of workers in a recession is a blunt instrument used to balance a company’s budget.

blunt their efforts

One can accidentally blunt a knife or axe by hitting it on a hard surface preventing the tool from being useful.  Figuratively, a person or group can blunt the efforts of another group by reducing their funding or blocking their progress.

Example:  In the first few years of the Obama presidency, Republicans in Congress seemed to be able to blunt the efforts of Democratic leaders trying to change the health care system.

Next time:  Mired in gridlock – Metaphors of swamps!

Defensive Tactics in War and Politics

To complete my series of discussions of war metaphors in politics, I now consider metaphors derived from defensive tactics.  In a bit of rare good timing, just today President Obama used one of these metaphors in a speech about the possibilities of Al Qaeda attacks on Americans around the world: “The United States is never going to retreat from the world,” the president told a crowd of Marines at Camp Pendleton in California. “We don’t get terrorized.” ( Of course, the notion of retreating is derived from the practice of an army withdrawing from a forward position when they are being defeated in a battle.  Here are a few more examples of metaphors of defensive war tactics used in political discourse.

Retreat from Long Island: Washington leads the Continental Army in a retreat across the East River into Manhattan, August 27, 1776 -  engraving by James Charles Armytage from painting by Michael Angelo Wageman, 1897.
Retreat from Long Island:  Washington leads the Continental Army in a retreat across the East River into Manhattan, August 27, 1776 – engraving by James Charles Armytage from a painting by Michael Angelo Wageman, 1897.

under attack

When two armies are fighting in a battle, the army on the offensive will be shooting guns or missiles at the other army.  The second army is said to be under attack. In politics, candidates running for office or elected officials may be described as being under attack if they are constantly criticized for their views or behavior.

Example:  George W. Bush was constantly under attack from Democrats while he was in office.  Later, his Democratic successor, Barack Obama, was always under attack from Republicans.

outflanked by

The flank is the fleshy side of an animal used for meat.  It may also mean the side of something.  In military terms, the flank is one side of the army’s forces.  To be outflanked means that the opposing army has come around one side and is attacking the other force directly.  A political party that has been defeated in a certain situation by the clever actions of the other party may be described as being outflanked.

Example:  In Barack Obama’s first years in office, he was outflanked by a Republican controlled Congress on many occasions.


The word maneuver literally means the work of the hands.  In military procedures, a maneuver is an action that moves a group of troops or equipment in a certain direction to gain advantage in a war.  A losing army may be described as being outmaneuvered by the opposing army.  In politics, a losing politician or political party may be described as being outmaneuvered by their opponents.

Example:  Although many critics of Barack Obama believed that he was not born in the United States, he outmaneuvered them by producing his birth certificate from the state of Hawaii.


When a military force is losing a battle, they may have to return to their base instead of moving forward.  This is called making a retreat.  In politics, a candidate in an election campaign may have to give up and drop out of the race.  This may also be called making a retreat.  Also, any time a politician goes back to any earlier position, it may be called a retreat.

Example:  When Barack Obama was elected, he promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison.  However, he later changed his mind and his retreat on this position angered many of his liberal supporters.

give ground

As mentioned, the land fought over in a battle is called gaining or losing ground.  In other words, a losing army may give ground to the enemy.  In politics, a person who loses an important argument may be described as someone giving ground to his or her opponent.

Example:  In 2011, many Republican Congressmen refused to give ground on the discussion of ending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

defend his turf

Another way of saying that an army is defending the ground is to say defending the turf.  Turf is also a term commonly used in football where two teams also fight for ground on the football field.  In politics, a person who must defend his or her position in an argument may be described as defending his or her turf.  Also, a presidential candidate who does not win the most votes in his or her own state in an election may be described as failing to defend his or her home turf.

Example:  In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore was not able to defend his home turf in Tennessee as the majority of votes in that state went to George W. Bush.

front lines 

In war, the place where the armies meet to fight each other is called the front line.  It can be used literally in terms of battles in war, or metaphorically in battles of political policies.

Example:  President Lyndon Baines Johnson put himself on the front lines of the war on poverty in 1964.

in the trenches

During World War I, soldiers had to dig deep ditches or trenches to protect themselves from enemy attacks.  This type of fighting wars was called fighting in the trenches.  Metaphorically, politicians involved in complex negotiations or arguments may be described as fighting in the trenches.

Example:  Although John McCain fought deep in the trenches for the presidency in 2008, he was not able to win the election.

Cheshire Regiment of the British Army in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, July, 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of WW I
Cheshire Regiment of the British Army in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, July, 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of WW I

new line of defense

After an army gives ground in a war, they must start again from a new position.  This position can be called a new line of defense. In politics, a new way of making an argument may be called a new line of defense.  In common terms, a new way of preventing a problem from happening may be referred to as a new line of defense.

Example:  When the unemployment rate goes higher and higher, the new line of defense is to extend unemployment benefits to people out of work.

fight a losing battle

In a very common metaphor, political arguments are referred to as battles.  When a politician is losing an argument with his or her opponents, we may say that this person if fighting a losing battle.

Example:  Gun control advocates often complain that they seem to be fighting a losing battle since Congress always seems to fail to pass gun control laws.

return fire

Shooting a gun may also be called firing a gun.  When an army is being shot at, they usually shoot back.  This may be called returning fire. In politics, responding to a criticism by making a counter argument is called returning fire.

Example:  In the 2011 Republican primary, Mitt Romney returned fire after being criticized by Newt Gingrich.

ward off

The term ward originally meant a guard or sentry in a military situation.  To ward off someone meant to fight off an intruder.  In common terms, to ward off something means to prevent something bad from happening.

Example:  Congress is always trying to ward off increasing the national debt by passing legislation to reduce government spending.

rally the troops

When a military force is losing a battle, the soldiers may need to be inspired to keep on fighting. This is called rallying the troops.  In common terms, any group of workers or voters that need to be inspired may be described as rallying the troops.

Example:  Barack Obama had to rally the troops in order to get support from his political base to win re-election in 2012.

Next time:  Sharp tones:  Metaphors of tools in political rhetoric

Offensive Tactics in War and Politics

To continue my discussion of war metaphors, I would like to share some examples of how offensive tactics in a battle are the source of metaphors used to describe political strategies in campaigns and government policies.

hold the high ground

Battles between armies sometimes go back and forth gaining and losing territory.   Holding a position on a hill gives one army an advantage in being able to see a great distance and shoot down on the enemy.   Thus holding the high ground is always a top priority in a battle.  Metaphorically, maintaining a political or ideological advantage in an argument may also be called holding the high ground.

Example:  Democrats often claim they hold the moral high ground when they try to raise taxes on millionaires to make the tax codes more fair for the middle class.

common ground

The land where battles are fought between two armies is called the common ground.  In an argument, the points on which both sides can agree may also be called the common ground.

Example:  Republicans and Democrats have much different views on how to run the U.S. government.  However, in some cases they find common ground to get bills passed that benefit the American people.

The Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, August 9, 1862 - Currier and Ives, 1862
The Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, August 9, 1862 – Currier and Ives, 1862

charge ahead

When an army is on the offensive, they may charge ahead into enemy territory in order to gain a victory.   In common terms, when people begin a new project with great energy and focus, we may also say that they are charging ahead.

Example:  When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they charged ahead with their conservative agenda on tax reforms.

attack, assault

The word assault has its origins in a French word meaning the attack of an army.  In modern days, an assault can be an attack by a military force or by an individual person.  We may also say that a verbal attack on someone or something is also an assault.

Example:  In 2011, Democrats complained that the Republican bills to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans were essentially an assault on the middle class.


For hundreds of years, armies consisted of both soldiers on foot and other soldiers on horseback.   The unit of soldiers riding horses was called the cavalry.  In many battles, especially those depicted in American movies, the cavalry came to the rescue of soldiers or captured civilians.  In common terms, people who rescue a situation from becoming a disaster are called the cavalry.

Example:  When Barack Obama ran for reelection in 2012, he called in the cavalry of all the progressive groups that helped him get elected in 2008.


The word stealth derives from an old word meaning to steal.  Later it came to mean something that was secretive or hidden.  In military terms, a stealth jet is one that cannot be detected by radar.  In common terms, any process that is secretive or not well known to the general public may be called stealth.

Example:  Barack Obama’s support for social programs led critics to accuse him of being a stealth socialist.

soldier on, soldier through

In a war, soldiers must continue fighting under horrible, exhausting conditions.  They must continue to fight to win the war.  This phenomenon may be called soldiering on or soldiering through the war.  A person who works very hard to accomplish a goal may also be described as soldiering through the process.

Example:  An American president must soldier through many challenges and setbacks to be a successful leader.


In some cases, a military force may completely destroy a building or encampment of the enemy with bombs or missiles.  Natural disasters may also destroy buildings and infrastructure.  In politics, we also talk about an event or action destroying a person’s career.

Example:  In the early years of the Obama presidency, critics complained that his health care and tax reform policies would destroy America.

capture the White House

In some wars, one military force with capture enemy soldiers and hold them prisoner until the end of the war.  In metaphorical terms, any idea that is well understood, or any office that is won in an election may be described as being captured.  In American politics, the presidential election may be called capturing the White House.

Example:  Barack Obama was the first African-American to capture the White House.

Next time:  Defensive Tactics in War and Politics