A common rhetorical device used by poets, writers, and public speakers (especially pastors) is anaphora, defined as the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause. Anaphora is derived from the Latin and Greek word anaphora, meaning “reference” and literally “a carrying back.” The anaphora establishes rhythm, but more importantly, it underscores an important idea. Anaphoras are often found in hymns and prayers; however the most famous anaphoras is found in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The speech was heard by a crowd of over 250,000 people who came from all over the country to participate in the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs.
The speech contains 1,667 words, however the best known words are contained in the anaphoral phrase “I have a dream,” used nine times in an improvised section of the speech (thanks to a shout out by legendary gospel singer Mahlia Jackson, known as “The Queen of Gospel”) that highlights the contrast between what the world is now, and what it can be:
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.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.” (Italics added)
A few lines later, as he approaches the speech’s conclusion, King returns to the anaphora, this time using “Let freedom ring” ten times:
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 if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
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.”
For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene (2002)