Martin Luther King, Jr. uses many geological references in “I Have a Dream,” but he is not merely discussing features of the earth’s crust when he speaks of mountains and valleys.
King uses elements of the natural world such as hills, mountains and valleys as vehicles to convey the tenor of his opposition to social injustice, such as the “dark and desolate valley of segregation” and the “mountain of despair.” In the natural world, there is nothing inherently evil about valleys or any reason why a mountain should be a source of despair. But with this kind of ambiguity, how could King’s audience understand his metaphors?
King’s background as a preacher establishes an ethos with his audience that permits him to use these kinds of metaphors with little fear of being misunderstood. In the Judeo-Christian tradition (and in many others), abstract ideas have often been illustrated by features of the physical world. For example, since many in King’s audience would be familiar with Jesus’ parable of the two houses-one built on sand and the other built on rock (Mt. 7:24-27)-when King compares “the quicksands of racial injustice” to “the solid rock of brotherhood,” he does not have to explain further when he says in the next paragraph that “[t]he whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation . . . .”
Mountains represent obstacles that King wishes to overcome. Paraphrasing Isaiah 40:4, 5, King proclaims that the glory of the Lord will be revealed when mountains are leveled and valleys are raised. To King’s audience, this could mean that removing social barriers is doing God’s work. Racism and segregation are not insurmountable. God created mountains and he can tear them down; humanity created racial intolerance, so it can eliminate it as well.
Toward the end of his speech, King no longer refers to allegorical geological features, but to real mountains. King cites the patriotic song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” which includes the lyrics “From every mountain-side, Let freedom ring.” King adds to this song’s emotional appeal by naming several specific hills and mountains in the U. S. from which he would like to hear freedom ring. These hills and mountains are a diverse group belonging to different chains, varying in age and resulting from a variety of phenomena, but they can be classified together because they lie within the contiguous United States. King’s mentioning these mountains not only illustrates how America is great because of its diversity, but also appeals to his many of his listeners’ sense of Manifest Destiny.
The mountain vehicle is used throughout the speech but the tenor becomes more optimistic toward the end. King’s mountains, originally obstacles of despair, finally become archetypes of grandeur and vision.