Tuesday, August 28, 2018
August 28, 2018: SpeechStudying: King’s “Dream” Speech
[On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech to the March of Washington. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that and four other great American speeches!]
On two rhetorical strategies that exemplify the power of one of our greatest speeches and orators.
In my now-annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day post, I begin with the statement that King’s August 1963 “I have a dream” speech has been slightly overrated in our collective memories. I hope that the post quickly and thoroughly moves beyond that clickbait-y starting point to clarify what I’m really arguing, which includes not only an appeal for memories of King’s voice, activism, and legacies well beyond any one speech, but also and just as importantly an argument for better appreciating this one speech’s multiple sections and tones. That is, while the optimistic ending featuring the rightly famous “I have a dream” series of images is certainly worth our attention, that ending can’t be fully understood outside of the context of the speech’s far more pessimistic (or at least bitingly realistic) opening. There, King highlights the year’s centennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and then transitions, with the stunningly blunt sentence “But 100 years later the Negro still is not free,” into an extended reflection on the early 1960s “shameful condition” that has brought the Civil Rights marchers there to Washington.
That overall structure and shift is one striking and successful element of King’s speech, and here I want to highlight two other hugely impressive rhetorical strategies he employs. One is the extended metaphor King develops just after that biting opening, a metaphor that begins with the sentences, “In a sense we’ve 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.” King then takes the metaphor to two additional levels: a criticism that “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’”; and an optimistic rejoinder that “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’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” I’m not sure most orators could have come up with this pitch-perfect metaphor at all, and I’m quite sure that very few others could have made such multi-layered and compelling use of it.
The other rhetorical strategy I’ll highlight is already better known, thanks to the aforementioned “I have a dream” sequence: King’s consistent use of repetition throughout the speech. While of course those culminating repetitions are tremendously moving on their own terms, I’d say the strategy overall works best because, not coincidentally, of how often he repeats it throughout the speech. King follows the stunning phrase “the fierce urgency of now” by beginning four straight sentences with “Now is the time,” creating that sense of immediacy and urgency for his audience. Later, he begins a series of sentences in a row with two alternating phrases, “We cannot be satisfied” and “We can never be satisfied,” framing the moment’s unacceptable realities and building toward the section’s conclusion: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Through these and other repetitions and parallelisms, King fully draws his audience into the flow of his thoughts and perspective, making us into fellow travelers along the speech’s path from dark realities to hopeful dreams. One more way that, just to say it clearly one more time, the “I have a dream” speech is indeed fully deserving of its status as one of the greatest American orations.
Next speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other speeches you’d highlight?