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Happy Birthday: A Guest Post

My family has a tradition of reading the “I Have a Dream” speech on Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday. We pass it around, with each person reading one sentence.

So in honor of today’s holiday, here’s a question about the speech: what is the second-most-used figure of speech or metaphor in the speech itself (“I Have a Dream” being the most used)?

Somewhat surprisingly, the answer is an economic image. The words “check” or “note” are used 8 times in the speech, while the word “dream” is used 11 times. The following is the core usage of these words (with the full text available here):

In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The “Check Cashing” speech or the “Insufficient Funds” speech does not have quite the same ring as the “I Have a Dream” speech. But it shows that, metaphorically at least, Rev. King was willing to commodify freedom.