I Have A Dream

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is an opportunity to learn from his strategic thinking and mastery of rhetoric. That is especially true on the day Obama will be delivering his second inaugural address.

Consider King’s powerful words about the civil rights struggle, which echo today in the climate battle:

We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’

Note how King repeatedly uses key figures of speech — alliteration, metaphor — and extends the metaphor of another master of rhetoric, Shakespeare (Julius Caeser), all of which are classic oratorical strategies (see “How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, Part 1: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare“).

I think science has mostly told us what it can about the fiercely urgent need to act swiftly to avoid adding the bleached bones and jumbled residues of our civilization to the pile (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice“). Our urgent need now is for much more persuasiveness (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”). I have a dream that progressives will some day have the winning words to match their vital ideas.

King’s most famous speech illustrates the rhetorical principle of foreshadowing, as I discuss in my new book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga, excerpted below:

As a theatrical device, the essence of foreshadowing can be found in Anton Chekhov’s advice to a novice playwright: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Create anticipation and then fulfill the listener’s desire.

Foreshadowing is related to the figure of speech ominatio (Latin for omen), which, one Renaissance rhetoric text explains is “when we do show & foretell what shall hereafter come to pass, which we gather by some likely sign, and in ill things we foretell it, to the intent that heed may be paid, and the danger of avoided; and in good things to stir up expectation and hope.”

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has a soothsayer famously and futilely warn Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”-a foreshadowing ominatio that Caesar famously and fatally ignores: “He is a dreamer,” shrugs Caesar. “Let us leave him.”

Bob Dylan’s tragic “Like a Rolling Stone” heroine is similarly warned, and by many: “People’d call, say, ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’ “-which she also unwisely pays no heed to: “You thought they were all kiddin’ you.”

Dramatic foreshadowing has an even more important rhetorical counterpart. The golden rule of speechmaking is “Tell ’em what what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.” The first part of that triptych is the rhetorical foreshadowing of the main idea of your speech, the introduction of the dominant theme of your remarks.

I can think of no more remarkable combination of dramatic and rhetorical foreshadowing in a modern public address than the opening lines of Martin Luther King’s keynote address at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (video above and text here).

The speech is often presented without his introductory sentence, which is unfortunate since it is an essential element of his message. King began, “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.” This opening line foreshadows that the intellectual focus of the speech will be “freedom,” a word that, with its partner “free,” King repeats twenty-four times in his 1500-word oration. As we will soon see, it also anticipates his optimistic message.

King uses the word “history” twice in this simple prefatory line, foreshadowing that he will be taking a historical perspective, which he does from the start.

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.

Echoing Lincoln’s famous formulation, “fourscore and seven years ago,” in the literal shadow of the Lincoln monument, King here combines the verbal with the visual to turn Lincoln’s two great 1863 acts of communication-the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg address-into a symbolic foreshadowing of his own remarks 100 years later. In doubling this historical connection, he underscores what will be his main theme: Emancipation has not yet been realized:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

We hear again King’s favorite rhetorical device in this speech, anaphora, in the repetition of “one hundred years later” to help him refine the central idea that “the Negro is still not free.” King’s speech makes the words “Emancipation Proclamation” cruelly ironic: The Negro was proclaimed free, but still is not.

The body of the speech lays out King’s nonviolent approach to fulfilling the “quest for freedom” and restates again and again both his dream and his demand for freedom. He says that “in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream … a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” An essential goal of the speech is to instill hope, optimism, and faith in the listeners that the dream of freedom will be achieved, to urge with a powerful metaphor that they “not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He describes his stirring dreams, which are themselves ominatio, foretelling a future without racism, a future of freedom for all. He builds to the climax using the phrase “Let freedom ring” a dozen times and ends with the final repetitions of the key word as he says we can “speed up that day when all of God’s children … 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!’ ”

Now we see what was powerfully foreshadowed in the opening line: “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.” He is foreshadowing-prophesying-the success of this demonstration and the realization of his dreams. Through the figure of ominatio King did “show & foretell what shall hereafter come to pass “… in good things to stir up expectation and hope.”

That King would be a master of rhetoric and foreshadowing is not unexpected since he was, after all, a Reverend, a preacher, a student of the Bible. Foreshadowing and ominatio are the foundation upon which the Bible’s scaffolding of rhetoric was built-and the power of dreams to foretell the future is a Biblical truism. For Christians, the words in the Old Testament foreshadow the coming of the Messiah in the New Testament. The gospels are clearly written to echo the prophecies and promises and proverbs in the Old Testament. If you are a believer, that is because Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the words in the Old Testament. If you are not a believer, that is because the writers of the New Testament were trying to portray Jesus as the Messiah. Either way, by God’s design or man’s, the Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament again and again.

Jesus himself makes many prophecies that show and foretell what shall hereafter come to pass. He foretells events that happen very soon, such as when he tells Peter, “Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” He foretells events a long time off: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And he foretells events that have not yet come to pass-his return.

Foreshadowing and ominatio are key elements of poetic justice. Consider the story of Joseph. His brothers hated him because their father loved him the most, which the gift of the coat of many colors showed only too clearly. Joseph dreamt that he and his brothers were collecting stalks of grain, and when his own grain stalk stood up, those of his brothers bowed down before him. “Shalt thou indeed reign over us?” his brothers said. The text goes on, “And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.” Dreams are classic foreshadowing in the Bible as well as many other holy books.

One day, when Joseph’s brothers saw him in the field, “they said one to another, ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit “¦ and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ ” This is best labeled ironic foreshadowing, a favorite device also of Shakespeare’s and other great writers. The final line is intended as sarcasm, that the dreams will be dashed in death, but it soon becomes dramatic irony.

Instead of killing him, his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph ended up in the Egyptian prison, but using his power to interpret dreams, he not only won his freedom but soon became Pharaoh’s right hand man, after predicting that Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows meant there would be seven good harvests followed by seven years of famine, and thus, during the good years, Pharaoh would need to store up the grain. Every single thing Joseph said comes true. Then, during the famine, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt for grain so the family would not starve. Joseph thus gained power over his brothers, whom he put through various trials. But instead of seeking revenge, he saved his family from starvation.

This is poetic justice, that Joseph’s dreams of having power over his brothers came true precisely because they abandoned him, making their words dramatic irony that foreshadowed the end of the story. This is irony of fate.

The enduring power and poignancy of this story can be found in the words on a plaque at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination (with a slightly different translation than the King James): “Behold the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we will see what will become of his dream.”

King’s dream did survive him, and, some might argue, in the election of Barack Obama, witnessed its apotheosis, though not its completion.

Whereas the civil rights movement was trying to undo a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong, the challenge for climate science activists (the future generations rights movement?) is that we are trying to prevent a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong. That mission will require even more eloquence, even more commitment.

I have a dream of clean air and clean water for my daughter and all the children of the world. I have a dream of clean energy jobs for millions of Americans and tens of millions of people around the globe. I have a dream we saved this garden of Eden for generations to come, saved it from the greed and myopia of the few.

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13 Responses to I Have A Dream

  1. Joan Savage says:

    I’m focusing on the short version:

    “…tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

    Let’s see if we can learn that, like the King’s Speech.

    The people’s microphone has been a recent development which draws on the benefits of the call-and-response in African-American churches. In oral traditions, or at least those with little access to written texts, active audience repetition is essential to engagement and memory.
    Later confusion about what someone said is pathetic. Compare that to an audience that confidently repeats key phrases, heard often, even shouted out in response.

    Tomorrow is today.
    Tomorrow is today.

  2. Raul M. says:

    Congratulations Joe,
    That is an excellent journey of thought.
    The logistics point to something happening
    within the next four years that will be
    in responce to climate change. Most likely
    many things in response. Hopefully, people
    will learn timely responsiveness. It is nice
    to see your well intentioned work bring more
    response at a time when response is so needed
    to the sounds of the waves, to the sounds of the winds.

  3. Brooks Bridges says:

    Now all we need is a moden version of Martin Luther King for climate change actions to use these techniques.

    Ideally addressing a crowd of 200,000 in DC.

    Our environmental groups are each going their separate ways instead of combining to speak with one voice.

    I despair at the lack of enthusiasm here and among various environmental groups for supporting the Sierra Club and rally Feb 17 in DC.

    Please get info and sign up:

  4. Anne says:

    I had a dream — I had a dream that the President of the United States would, long at last, long at last, squarely face the largest challenge of our day. And today, like an oxygen mask when suffocating, or a drink of fresh water when dehydrated, POTUS finally acknowledged the threat of climate change to America’s natural resources, and asserted his resolve to addressing it and embracing, not evading, the imperative for US leadership in moving towards a more sustainable energy economy. Well it’s about freaking time, Barack Obama. In the words of my favorite preacher man, Earthalujah! (Though, not holding breath… the proof is always in the pudding!)

  5. Niall says:

    It’s harder than it looks, Joe. I think I need to find a copy of your book. The following is not addressed to you personally, but I’m not an orator. I’m probably not that much of a writer either. Still, in honour of MLK, Jr:

    I have a dream today, a day on which farmland dries, on which ice melts in torrents into rising oceans, on which forests burn. In the midst of nightmare I say that all is not yet lost. I call on you to wake, to take a stand.

    I do not feel I exaggerate when I state that those who knowingly deny the truth of this warming world, often those most responsible for the growing heat, are the moral equivalent of humanity’s worst mass killers. As a result of their actions we face the devastation of our common home and the deaths of many millions. We have waited too long. The time for compromise is over. These people must be resisted, whatever the cost to ourselves. We must stand against them.

    They have a record, and so many have been blinded by their lies. Every concession on the environment and every social improvement has been fought for. The abolition of the slave trade was resisted by those who thought it would wreck the economy, and their successors now seek ways to slash pay as far as possible, to the edge of survivability, while those they have no need for are vilified as lazy, having lives not worthy of living. Yet we must ask a question. Who then wrecked the economy? Who drove people to destitution? The same people our sons and daughters will damn for dooming them to climatic chaos.

    They have ever seen that which is not them as that which is free for the taking, and wastes as something to dump, to forget like a used rag. For most the victims are out of sight and out of mind. For all of recorded history people have died and suffered, habitats have been despoiled, the poor fed lies to fight their wars. Their victims today, who starve, who have what little they have taken from them, who die in destitution, are victims of that which is tantamount to war. They tell us we are free, while they enslave our minds. When our enemies cannot take what they wish they bring a war. A war that is about to grow. The poor are right to rise in arms!

    I see another way, and I have a dream. A dream of a better way, a dream of one species among many, with which we live in peace.

    The market has failed us and Nature neither knows nor cares that the profits go to provide for the poor rather than to line the pockets of plutocrats. We may care, but a socialist oil man is still an oil man, to be damned by generations yet to come.

    So we live in era that will live in infamy. Our children will curse those responsible – if they survive.

    I have heard it asked, where are the climate change Pearl Harbors. Where is climate’s Nazi blitzkrieg?

    I say they are here. The east coast of a continent has been pounded into the surf. Our grain reserves are dangerously low, and more will likely starve as bread falls out of reach through war, corruption and the greed of the few. Half another continent burns like a torch.

    No, a better question is: where are the Churchills, Dowdings and Montgomerys? Yet even that is wrong. The inbred, pompous, private-school-educated fools with inflated senses of entitlement are the problem. Churchill did not say, “I shall fight them on the beaches,” he said “we shall fight them on the beaches,” and stand and hold we must.

    Many of us may need leadership, but that will not come from those we tasked to lead us. In time of war all must work, must sacrifice, must toil beneath the sweltering skies, not delude ourselves that that greenwashed buying will turn the rising tide. Nor must we collude with our enemy, who tells us there are no alternatives, who tells lies of happiness through an impossible perpetual growth, like a cancer spreading through every living organ, who offers only scraps from their groaning table. Consumption was once only known as a disease, and so it remains, but the disease is not what we thought it was. There is fever, true. The bodies of many waste while others grow fat. The disease is more lethal still.

    The war against Nazism was not won by prime ministers and generals and air marshals. It was won by those who fought in the now warming air, and on the now shrinking landing grounds, and in the now spreading deserts. It was won by those who toiled to make it so. Where are those willing to put themselves on the line, or to give up comfort and security to tackle the greatest threat our species has ever faced?

    So I have a dream today. I dream of a day when we take back what has been taken from us, when we care for that which cannot protect itself, when all peoples stand together at last to bring down our fretful world’s fever, when we carve out the endlessly growing tumour that is not as benign as we were told, when we finally learn we have one common mother.

    I do not ask where where is the invasion. It is here. Yet I do not ask that you rise and kill. I ask that you merely demand that which is rightfully yours, that we stand together in the peace that we must build. I do not ask where are our leaders. I ask only one thing.

    Where are you?

  6. Brian R Smith says:

    For climate, in the U.S., there is no ambitious, enthusiastic and sufficiently organized and funded effort at collaboration among the most influential players. There are on-going and new coalitions evolving, and groups combine forces around specific events (e.g. Sierra & @35o). Progress in this direction is incremental and scattered at best from the point of view that there is no time to waste creating unity of mind & purpose among voters about climate urgency. It will be a different ballgame when climate leaders finally sit down to develop an overarching, deliberate strategy for public engagement, coordination of legislative & policy actions, and responding to corporate funded denialism. Enormous political advantage is forfeit without serious strategy based on collaboration. In my view.

    “I despair at the lack of enthusiasm here and among various environmental groups for supporting the Sierra Club and rally Feb 17 in DC.” Brooks, is this the feeling you get, or have dissenting groups told you of reasons for lack of enthusiasm? Or perhaps you heard something from a close source. Any info on such attitudes is helpful to understanding the problem.

  7. Daniel Coffey says:

    Rallies are cool, but they don’t substitute for actual renewable, non-carbon energy assets built on the ground and electrified transportation that displace the need for coal, natural gas and oil. If you want to rally, go down and SUPPORT a large scale wind or solar PV project. Make the good guys trying to do the right thing feel a little more welcome.

    Over the last 10 years, Sierra Club and others have fervently opposed large-scale renewable energy projects and related transmission, demanded studies (which have often been done only to produce legal challenges), imposed delays and generally opposed everything in favor of solar-on-rooftop (SOR) and conservation.

    While apparently this is a strategic approach seeking to push society toward a vision of a highly dispersed energy system, it has fundamentally overlooked the raw reality of what has been happening in the oil patch over the last 10 years.

    During that tens years, horizontal drilling and fracking for oil, and now natural gas, has grown up and become economically popular in many places for its success at producing fossil fuels, even as large scale solar and wind have been fighting at every turn for relatively minor advances. Natural gas jobs have increased; wind jobs are a little more rocky. If every fracking project was forced to undergo the regulatory review, challenges, and environmental opposition a wind turbine does, it would hardly exist.

    Remember when T. Boone Pickens was strongly advocating wind power in congress and Republicans were respectfully listening. He also was involved in natural gas plays. At one of his speeches he pointed out that natural gas would need to be around $9 to make wind competitive. Then the price of NG dropped to $3 as fracking exploded across the nation. Then he slowed or stopped his wind project efforts. And what was a rapt Republican audience became the same old people who have always said wind and solar can’t work or compete.

    Sadly, opposition to wind and solar has come from both Republicans and environmentalists. That is just the sad, sad fact. That opposition has had real consequences, many of which the environmental community seeks to now disavow by touting all their best intentions.

    Rallies and intentions don’t build non-carbon energy systems which don’t emit greenhouse gases, supported, financed and encouraged projects do.

  8. Daniel Coffey says:

    That is a passionate plea for action.

    It is worth recalling that Churchill was NOT particularly popular for the truths he uttered. However, he focused on what needed to be done, never lost track of the logistics of the remedy, and pressed forward without wasting time.

    The challenge of global warming is not the same as war, and the solutions are very different. The lessons of logistical response which we learn won WWII are not lost in the current era, but the tools and methods are not the same.

    The leadership which seeks to beat enemies into the ground and to punish are not going to succeed, as the task is to transform the way our society transports itself and produces electricity, the two largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Those two tasks go hand in hand, and can be accomplished relatively easily with the technology we now have, and in a way that does not punish the poorest among us.

    We have the tools, but in insufficient numbers and only lightly deployed. We need to get to the building and deploying as quickly as possible, as that is how we will win this struggle, if it is not already too late.

    Recall also that Europe under the Nazi regime was a fortress across a channel from England and it required extraordinary sacrifice to bridge that divide. Will we be asked to do less?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yes, such a man (given the institutionalised misogyny of capitalism, it cannot, regrettably, be a woman)would need to be a brave soul, too, because leaders are so easily disposed of, particularly those who oppose the status quo. Which, of course, is why we need a revolution from below, which is not so easily decapitated.’Draining the sea’ in the capitalist ‘Homelands’ is probably not possible.

  10. Bill D. says:

    All of the great challenges faced by our nation and the world pale by comparison to the climate change conundrum. We’re talking about rendering the earth’s atmosphere totally inhospitable for human life. We’re envisioning “moon bases” on the forbidding, future surface of Mother Earth and witnessing the end of nature as we’ve known it.

    Nothing that humankind has ever done rises to this level of severity and utter stupidity. We’ve already entered the Age of Consequences; the only question is how bad will this crisis get before everyone finally gets the message?

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What we really need, is an environmental Red Army to do the real dirty work in defeating the denialist Panzers.

  12. AlC says:

    From what I have seen, the Sierra Club is supporting large-scale solar and wind when appropriately sited. Some locations for solar in particular may cause more CO2 emissions than can be avoided in many years of operation of solar power. Realize that there was a study published in Science that found a surprising amount of carbon sequestered in undisturbed desert soil, which was oxidized to CO2 when the soil was disturbed.

    And yes, the Sierra Club does support rooftop solar.

    The Sierra Club is also working on fracking issues, trying to get disclosure of fracking chemicals, and public notice/review before fracking.

  13. Ozonator says:

    “We … are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. — “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963” (

    Making 1 out of 24, Shandong was a correct AGW quake prediction. It was in the “Shandong (5+)” region under 1/13 – 19/13, exceeded the 4.5 Richter minimum, and in the 2nd week of the standard 2-weeks model. Changing to an even worse system since they are user-unfriendly geologists, the mostly good people with unfriendly user web maps at the USGS reported with poorly colored numbers and letters, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … Date … Region: “4.5 … 2013/01/23 … SHANDONG, CHINA” ( This was also in the comments section of “‘Language Intelligence’ The Audiobook: Listen To ‘Lessons On Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln And Lady Gaga’ … By Joe Romm on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm” (