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Multiculturalism        < Previous        Next >


Can You Write With the Language Power

Of Dr. Martin Luther King?


Today's snack: Since we're going to be working with one of the most famous speeches in history, the "I Have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, let's make "Saturday Dreams"! Slit a hot dog down the middle, fill the slit with cheese slices, and broil in the oven. Eat on a soft bun with mustard and ketchup. It's dreamy!





Pencil, paper and a printout

of the "I Have a Dream" speech from the link below


If you have a laptop available and can play the

audio of the speech (see link below), so much the better



It wasn't just the ideas expressed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream," delivered Aug. 28, 1963 to more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.


It wasn't just WHAT the civil rights leader said - it was the way he said it. Dr. King was a timeless master of the art of rhetoric - defined as communication using the most persuasive and highest-quality language and word imagery matched for the audience and the setting.


That speech is one of the most influential and inspirational pieces of rhetoric in American history. Most amazing of all, half of it wasn't even planned. Halfway through, Dr. King started improvising, or speaking from his heart instead of from his script.


He spoke with passion and with power, using a number of rhetorical devices to strengthen his message - but it wasn't calculated that way. It was a spontaneous eruption of pure genius that, even today, many Americans respond to emotionally and gratefully, for he put into words what many people were feeling.


Dr. King's "word pictures" seized the nation's attention and admiration, and encouraged the civil rights movement as never before.


His background as a Baptist preacher in the South gave him the communication experience necessary to inform and inspire, adjust his message to the crowd perfectly, and have the courage to switch away from his pre-planned script. That communication choice built instant rapport and trust from that audience. They could see that Dr. King wasn't trying to preach TO them, but to talk WITH them. And that made what he said all the more compelling.




Here is the text of "I Have a Dream": Printer-friendly PDF version

and full audio:




The speech is an excellent example of these characteristics of good rhetoric:








Unity - Dr. King wove references to American history and the Bible into his speech, establishing common ground with his audience as he compared the plight of the Old Testament Hebrews enslaved in the Bible to the plight of American blacks, first enslaved and later under segregation and discrimination. In the 1960s, people were a lot more familiar with their Bibles than many people are today. Even so, Dr. King knew the Bible better than most people. But he didn't use obscure Bible references that only a preacher would know; he used familiar stories with well-known outcomes. That unified him with his audience and showed that he didn't consider himself better than them.


Coherence - Dr. King used "word pictures" full of metaphors - symbols - that got his meaning across better than if he had just come right out and said what he meant. These metaphors painted pictures in the listeners' minds that helped them understand the content and stick with Dr. King's logical progression. Examples:

n      "seared in the flames of withering injustice"

n      "manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination

n      "whirlwinds of revolt"

n      "symphony of brotherhood."


Clarity -- his word choices were exactly right to get his points across, neither choosing overly simple words nor too difficult ones. Dr. King earned a Ph.D. from Boston University and had a scholar's approach to language, using it skillfully to reveal ideas and never to obscure it.


Force - When something is repeated over and over, the message gets across more and more strongly. Dr. King used an element of music in his speech - "refrain." In music, it's a repeated chorus; in a speech, it's a repeated phrase. Here are his refrains:

n      "I have a dream"

n      "let freedom ring"

n      "we can never be satisfied"

Other examples of powerful rhetoric that Dr. King used included multiple shifts in sentence lengths; dramatic shifts in tone, from angry to joyful; and the use of questions as well as exclamations.


Beauty - This speech is like a beautiful painting that you are drawn to look at and want to be a part of. Dr. King used admirable language skill in the way he varied his sentence lengths, shifted his tone from "quiet" to "loud"; use hyperbole (exaggeration), and asked questions as well as making statements, making his speech arresting and very enjoyable to listen to.

Read Dr. King's speech, watch the video, or both. And now here's today's challenge:


Choose something important, that you feel very strongly about and that needs to change, and outline a short (5 minutes, tops) speech about it on index cards.


Maybe it's ending some form of injustice; maybe it's mean people; maybe it's how much everything costs these days. Maybe it's your life's dream! Maybe it's your hero! Whatever moves you, powerfully, you should express with words, powerfully, the way Dr. King did.


You don't have to write out the entire speech word for word. Instead, get the main ideas and "word pictures" in mind, and then improvise - or speak from your heart - just glancing at the cards from time to time, so that it's a "speech" and not a "read."


Keep in mind the elements of good rhetoric, listed above, as you prepare.


Now give your speech to someone. Because, as Dr. King well knew, it's never truly communication until both sides are there - the speaker AND the listener - sharing the message, and communing with hearts and minds.


May people listen to YOU the way they did to Martin Luther King. And they will - if you have a dream, and keep believing in it 'til it comes true!


By Susan Darst Williams Multiculturalism 03 2008




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