Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Martin Luther King, Jr., Rhetorically Speaking

by Allison Wright

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a national holiday in the U.S., we commemorate the birthday of the eponymous leader and activist, and reflect on his significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King’s legacy, while forged in the midst of a tumultuous time in U.S. history, transcends categorical boundaries of race, class, and nationality. Each year on the third Monday of January, we’re reminded of the practice of civil disobedience, of overcoming (and sometimes succumbing to) overwhelming adversities over which we have but marginal control, and of the power that language has to effect change in the world.

Coming to you live from the Soapbox Memorial

The first image that comes to mind when I think of Dr. King is of him standing behind a podium. Behind him sits a statue of Abraham Lincoln. A crowd of thousands listens in earnest as he delivers one of the most memorable, and memorizable, speeches in history. Last October, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedication broadcast live from Washington, D.C., and I watched as the ceremony closed out with footage of the famous “I Have A Dream” speech given at the 1963 March On Washington. Thanks to many a U.S. history lesson, cultural osmosis, and the distinctive cadence and prosody of his delivery, I found myself reciting entire segments along with Dr. King on the television, vicariously inhabiting his role as orator for civil rights.

Oratory, the art of public speaking, is a formal practice of eloquent speechmaking that utilizes elements of language to influence an audience. In short, it is rhetoric on a public stage. Dr. King, an impassioned orator, made use of a wealth of rhetorical techniques in order to communicate the messages of equality, justice, and peace during the divisive and violent civil rights era.

Building up to a dream

Rhetorical devices are abundant in the “I Have A Dream” speech. Most noticeable, and frequently used, is anaphora, which our dictionary defines as “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses”:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Metaphors are also spread throughout the speech—sometimes in short bursts of “quicksands” and “solid rock”, and at other points extended to create an even fuller image:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check…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.”

Allusion helps Dr. King to hone his argument that Americans share a collective national ancestry:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hyperbole is balanced by simplicity and frankness:

I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight…

is preceded by a more moderate, but equally compelling:

I have a dream that one day…right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

Authority, Passion, Rationality

Greek philosopher Aristotle categorized three styles of appeal in persuasion: Ethos, asserting the credibility of the speaker; Pathos, appealing to the emotions of the audience; and Logos, persuasion through reasoning. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial forty-nine years ago, Dr. King weaved these rhetorical appeals into almost every segment of his “Dream” speech. He was a Baptist minister whose ethos was a claim of faith, both religious and secular. He made pathetic appeals to his audience’s nationalist sense of pride in America in a way that also reminded them of what their nation stood for and the principles it fought for. He knew when to sacrifice this balance and let one persuasive appeal dominate an argument. He was a remarkable orator, and his words helped change the world.

Allison Wright is an Editor for US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. The first chapter book she can remember reading was a children’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was also renowned for his oratory, best exemplified by his “I have a dream” speech delivered to around 200,000 marchers who marched on Washington, D.C., in […]

  2. […] March on Washington, to his final oration in Memphis, Tennessee, King is remembered not only as a masterful rhetorician, but a luminary for his generation and many generations to come. These quotes, compiled from the […]

Comments are closed.