BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 27 AUG 2010


You can see grainy pictures of an initially nervous Martin Luther King building up to his preacher, passionate best and his extempore, off script invocations of one of the the most heard lines in history, “I have a dream…”

What makes a great orator?  Lots of things, but one of them would be that, when you hear their speeches, it is inconceivable that they could be delivered by anyone else.  Martin Luther King is such an orator: just have a go at delivering some of his lines and see how ridiculous you seem.  For metaphor, analogy and soaring rhetoric you’ll not find better, ever or anywhere.

King was a preacher-man, and his soaring rhetorical flourishes resonated perfectly with the times.  This speech was so important, and when delivering it he seems to feel the weight of personal responsibility, he seems weary and resigned but none the less determined and sure of the rightness of the cause.  It’s not unlike Churchill’s slow, slurred drawl, another whose unique delivery style was inimitable and was undoubtedly one of the reasons the allies prevailed.

Can great oratory change the world?  Well, yes it can.  Listen to this forty year old speech and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or you have no soul.


Over 200,000 people were there, but many more would hear this speech, so it was delivered to the whole of America and much of the world.  King was speaking as momentum for the “Free by 63” was building, and he was not about to let go. Now was not the time to step back, to reflect on any past successes: it was time to push for changes in the law. In 64 and 65 Kennedy started and Johnston enacted Civil Rights legislation.

There were many marches and the like that helped change the face of America in the early 1960s, but there is little doubt that King’s ability as an orator was a fundamental component of these successes.  It is not difficult to believe that the inhabitants of the Oval Office had the final words of this speech,  “Free at last!  Free at Last!  Thank God we are free at last!” ringing in their ears as they debated and discussed and finally addressed issues of race.

This purpose of this speech was to tell white America three things: that they have reneged on a deal made a long time ago; that people of colour know this; and they will not put up with it for much longer.

You can hear the conviction, the sadness, and the weary determination of a great man who has reached the end of the road many times, but knows there will always be another one.

Martin Luther King stood on the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and was introduced as the moral leader of the nation: not a bad place to speak, and not a bad way to be introduced.

A Walk Through

King’s delivery is slow and deliberate, probably partly because he is used to preaching in big churches with lots of echo, or to large crowds with patchy sound systems.  But you can hear, even feel, the energy he creates just with that slow, southern drawl.  One of the most distinctive voices you will ever hear.

His energy comes from the words he uses as well as his delivery style: the metaphors and analogies that in many other’s hands might sound trite.  He repeats “one hundred years later” and gets some cheers, to the extent that he has to wait for the audience to quiet down.  This he does with impeccable timing.

Again, when he speaks of “the bad check” he gets cheers and laughs and shouts of affirmation.  This is important for him, since it’s momentum, and the bad check metaphor would resonate perfectly with his audience.  There is a terrific juxtaposition between the picture of a wealthy nation (the richest on the planet) and poor black people being given dud checks.

He builds up a further head of steam when he speaks of “the urgency of now” and with his repetition of “Now is the time”.  He rides the audience reaction here and pauses after he says “Now is the time”, as if the mantra at the beginning is more important than what comes after.  Here he is warning all those who think the negro will be satisfied with further delays or crumbs from the top table, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the negro.”  It is polite, but it is a warning.

And that warning moves into the threat that is unvarnished and direct, that there will be “a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual” and a stream of other powerful metaphors.  The subtle implication is that he and his followers have been holding back and, like any reasonable bunch of people, are waiting to see what happens next.

He then has an important message for those who are itching to take action and we get the lovely phrase, “we must meet physical force with soul force”.  This is all very well, but he nods in brotherhood to “the marvellous new militancy” and doubtless its existence did his cause no harm.  But this section finally is used to emphasise that this journey is about everyone, black and white and a  long, impassioned sentence is followed by a very short one, “We cannot walk alone.”

When he repeats “we can never be satisfied” in response to his own rhetorical question, we get a powerful shopping list that details how the struggle will continue and now is, as he said earlier, just a beginning.  The first point is about “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and this direct language contrasts nicely with the image of “our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities”.  That sentence has beautiful rhythm and cadence and is essentially poetry. In fact the whole of this section allows King to get into a bit of a groove, with a short point then a longer one.  There is a sense of a build up of momentum here, finishing as he does with the strident “No, no we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  He has to pause for quite awhile here to wait for the applause and cheers to die away.

Now the motivational preacher-man is in full flow, “battered by the storms of persecution…”.  Note the pronunciation of storms.  And after some more signature metaphors we get a terrific list that has the effect of singling out every member of his audience.  The delivery here is awesome, and shows exactly how a list can be a powerful oratorical technique.  But it’s just really the appetiser for what’s coming, because then we have it, twelve minutes in: I have a dream.

Before he gets into it he quotes his country’s constitution “…that all men are created equal”.  You could of course take all of this part and just read it, or listen to it, but what about this for a line?:

“I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Colour of their skin/ content of their character… impeccable symmetry.

There is a great juxtaposition between the words “interposition and nullification” and “little black boys and little black girls” joining hands with “little white boys and little white girls.”  And it’s all tied together with the most famous line ever delivered, “I have a dream.”

We are right at the crest of the wave now, and King rides it out with his audience until the quote from what was essentially the American national anthem before the Star Spangled Banner that gives him his next rhythm, “Let freedom ring.”

So he goes again, and you’ll notice he’s more animated in his face and his body. His hands are going, his voice is totally unconstrained and he is as near to extemporising as he’ll get in a speech of this importance: he’s in the zone and there’s now not a nerve in his body.

“Let freedom ring” becomes the next peak and is King’s peroration.  He starts his list, and at about “Stone Mountain of Georgia” the crowd really gets into his rhythm, helping him out along the way to the end.

What can lesser mortals take out of this quarter hour of oratory?

The benefit and reward from sitting down and finding some great words and phrases.  King is said to have stayed up most of the night working on his material and he came up with some terrific turns of phrase, some poetic lines.

Pace: allowing space around your words right from the beginning, letting the audience listen and take confidence from you.

The gift of waiting for the audience to settle before continuing, but also riding on the waves of energy that come from the audience when they are with you.

Juxtaposition: putting longer phrases next to shorter ones; complicated or big words next to small, simple ones.

Building up to a climax.  Look at the difference between the beginning and the end of King’s speech.  At the end we have flailing arms, body movement and the full range of his voice, while at the beginning he is quite quiet, measured and still.

Lists: King uses lists to build up his rhetoric and big up the crowd.  In the wrong hands they can be boring, but used carefully and delivered well lists are a great way of getting information across and creating a rhythm for your speech.

Repetition of words and phrases:  Comedians do this when they are in the zone with a crowd; they can simply repeat a certain phrase and know they’ll get a reaction.  King does it often here, most successfully with “I have a dream” but also, less famously with “Let freedom ring.”

Metaphor and analogy: few speakers could deliver quite so many examples and stories as King does here, but look at how they connect.  Who does not know about a bad cheque?  Who does not understand about the height of mountains or the depth of valleys?  Who would not comprehend the idea of little blacks and whites living as brothers and sisters?

The crafting of words that are immortal: this speech is famous for the phrase “I have a dream” but there is so much more to admire.


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