Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It goes without saying that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was both one of the most important American leaders of the 20th century and one of the greatest public speakers, a man who became one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement by inspiring the masses with his powerful, poetic addresses.

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2000) gathers some of his most significant speeches into one collection and features introductions from the likes of Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Young, and others to give the speeches context.

The speeches are brilliant. Editors Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard arrange them chronologically, so we do get a sense of the passage of time, and certain events referred to in earlier speeches are brought up again in later speeches, so we can chart some of the progress of the Civil Rights Movements and how King responded to these developments.

Since King's words are the main focus and he did not write them as a book, I thought I'd try something different for this post. Instead of "reviewing" the book, I want to look at what made King such a great speaker and how he used language to inspire.

1) Direct language
King did not mince his words. He didn't speak in jargon or use overly complicated, abstract ideas to get his points across. He came right out and said what he believed, what he wanted, and what he and others would do to achieve those goals. He was easy to follow, he made references people recognized and explained the more obscure ones, and he spoke strongly. He eschews the passive voice (I was, we were, this is something that...); he used strong, active verbs: "I refuse," I believe."

2) Repetition as Verse
It would be wrong to call King redundant. True, he repeats points and phrases throughout his speeches, but that's the strategy. He treats his speeches almost like Gospel songs, and his main points - "I have a dream," "Give us the ballot," "Let us march" - are his chorus. He comes back to those same words both for emphasis and lyrical quality. They become hard to forget or ignore.

3) Imagery
It's no exaggeration to call King's words poetic; he conveyed ideas with symbolic imagery that got the point across better than a long-winded dissertation would have. In his address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, he described the hardships of the march - the faces burned by the "sweltering sun," "slept in the mud," "drenched by the rain - and then reached the kicker, "we can say our feet are tired but our souls are rested." At the eulogy for three of the four victims killed in the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, he said, "The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city."

4) Biblical References
King was a preacher, so it's no surprise he refers to Scripture to make his case. He was particularly fond of referring to the Israelites in Egypt and how they escaped bondage, drawing a parallel between their struggles and the struggles of black Americans throughout the history of the country, whether it be in the physical chains of slavery or the laws of segregation. This use of reference give his speeches a mythical quality, equating the struggles of African Americans with the Israelites and showing that they too can overcome their struggles. It also enables King to cite religious sources to condemn slavery and persecution as immoral.

5) Inclusion
Throughout his speeches, King spoke a lot in the first person but not just the singular form. Yes, he had a dream, but it was a dream for everyone. Frequently, he used the noun "We," as in "We will struggle," "We will persevere," and "We will overcome." This fosters an immediacy and a connection to his audience. He's not just speaking for himself; he's speaking to us and for us.

6) Looking to the Future
Not one to rest on accomplishments, King always took time to acknowledge the past and point to the future. As individuals goals were met, the overall struggle toward complete equality must not be forgotten, he argued. There will still be challenges and setbacks ahead, but the journey must not be abandoned. Progress marches on, and the spirit prevails.

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