Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered to an assembled group of 200,000 his infamous “I have a Dream” speech, forever ingrained in my mind and the minds of many others, as the most powerful argument against racial inequality to ever be presented. Click here for speech Almost fifty years later, another speech on the very same issue has now made its way into the classic volumes of American rhetoric. Barak Obama (at that time the Senator of Illinois), speaking before the gathered crowd at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, delivered his “A More Perfect Unity” speech. click here for speechBoth speeches are strikingly similar, and make excellent use of several known rhetorical strategies.
Both King and Obama do an incredible job with using a concrete theme. In each speech, the theme (freedom in the case of King, and unity in the case of Obama) is repeated several times throughout the argument. In Kings piece the theme begins subtly, with infrequent usage of the word, and increases in both fervor and frequency, with a huge crescendo to the finish. Obama’s theme is presented concretely early, by linking himself in unity with history, and his family, and then builds as to moves to unity with his race, his church and eventually all of America. Both King and Obama used repetition of their theme as well. King using the word “freedom” 21 times, and Obama using “unity” 21 times. I find it very interesting the one word that states the over-all theme is used in both pieces the identical number of times.
Word repetition continues beyond the theme for both men, and we see several examples of this very powerful rhetorical strategy. Dr. King’s repetitions often come in the form of short phrases, specifically “one hundred years later”, “I have a dream”, and “we can never be satisfied”, as seen here:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
This form of word repetition was highly effective for Dr. King, particularly given his oratorio style, which in itself could be the subject of another discussion. Obama also used word repetition strategy, seen below in the use of “this time”, however he did not employ this as often as King:
“That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time, we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time, we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time, we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time, we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together and fight together and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. And we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them and their families, and giving them the benefits that they have earned.”
The use of allusion is also seen in both of the pieces, specifically with the use of scripture. Dr. King directly quoted scripture, specifically from the book of Isaiah, whereas Obama spoke of a cast of characters from the Old Testament:
"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters. And in that single note — hope! — I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories — of survival and freedom and hope — became our stories, my story. The blood that spilled was our blood, the tears our tears, until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black. In chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a meaning to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about — memories that all people might study and cherish, and with which we could start to rebuild."
This is very effective of both men, as they are able to link not only themselves, but also the entire black community to central figures from scripture.
Arguably, one of the most prominent strategies used in both speeches is that of counterpoint. Counterpoint can be expressed not only as the opposing view to one’s position in the presented argument, but also in the usage of language. Dr. King mentioned of “rightful place” and “wrongful deeds”, “bitterness” and “hatred”, “dignity” and “discipline”, “creative protest” and physical violence”, and “physical force” and “soul force”, all of which act to a counterpoint to each other.
“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force”
King complimented his counterpoint with fantastic use of imagery. We are not just standing on the threshold of a palace, but we are standing on the warm threshold of the palace of justice, with our thirst for freedom, drinking from the cup. King’s use of both imagery and counterpoint are frequent in his argument. The listener can physically feel his message. Obama also uses counterpoint many times. We see it in the use of such words as “color and creed”, “rights and obligations”, “protests and struggles”, “on the streets and in the courts”, and “civil war and civil disobedience.”
All of the strategies used by Obama and King lend themselves not only to written arguments, but to the listening audience as well. Word repetition and counterpoint are two very effective tools for oral argument. They help the listener to remember what has been said, long after the speech is over.
Both Dr. King and Barak Obama made effective use of known rhetorical strategies in these two now classic pieces of American rhetoric. In the case of Dr. King, an entire movement finally found its identity and was able to name its cause because of his powerful, skillful and passionate presentation of his argument. And as we know, Obama went on to become President Barak Obama, some say, in part, because of this speech. I can only hope that not another fifty years will pass before we finally see a realization of these men’s unifying dreams.