Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’
‘Reverend King uses empathetic language and relatability in his speech, to reach and impact black people and to give sympathetic exposure to his cause’
Summary: On August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King, famed reverend, theologian and non-violent civil rights activist, delivered what would become known as one of the world’s most famous speeches, at the ‘’March for Jobs and Freedom’’ in Washington D.C. His speech was the vocalization of many of the frustrations felt by African-Americans in the U.S at the time. 1963 was a great time of hardship for people of colour, and King provided a rabble-rousing and powerful verbal expression of this, using empathetic language and relatability to reach and impact the frustrated and world-weary people that were treated so unfairly, for so long. However, this approach did not only reach the thousands of black people present at the time, but inspired and motivated black and white people all over the country. Today, the 'I Have a Dream' speech is probably the most integral speech of the civil rights era. Many say it is a watershed moment in American history, and one that was instrumental in gaining sympathetic exposure for King’s cause. Many years later, this speech is a reminder of the appalling race related bigotry in the states, but also, a shining example to those who want to make a change.
Introduction: Throughout the 'I have a dream' speech, King's use of relatable anecdotes, and empathetic language is potent and impactful, especially for black people. However, King's plan was not merely to inspire black people, but to bring sympathy to the life of the black man and to the state of civil rights in America. At this time in the U.S, black people were seen as a threat by many, and King knew he had to make the black man a sympathetic character in order for the white man to eventually empathize.
It was through his experiences as a black man that he was able to convey his shared frustrations and bring sympathetic exposure to the civil rights movement. He began his speech by addressing the crowd at the feet of the Lincoln memorial. He immediately begins with the sentence ‘I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.’(1)By addressing the crowd like this, King shows that the current event he is speaking is a monumental opportunity for change. He uses the historical backdrop of Lincoln to discuss the emancipation proclamation, a decree, signed by Lincoln, guaranteeing an end to slavery. However, King points out, black people in America still are still not free. He continues to use empathy when disputing the ‘freedom’ of African Americans. ‘One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.’ (1) He goes on to say that ‘The Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.’(1) He claims that even after 100 years, life for black people in America is still very difficult, hoping to gain support from the white people listening.
King uses anecdotes in order to relate to his people, but more importantly, gain sympathy for his people. He discusses many of the inequalities met by people of colour at the time, for example, all the false promises given to them, the segregation they’ve had to face, the unfairness in the American banking system etc. King uses the example of a cash check, to make an analogy for the inequitable banking system in America. He states 'we've come to our nation’s capitol to cash in a check' (1) alluding to what black people have been promised and then, he says 'America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds' (2) which is in reference to the excuse given from bankers to black people during this time, in order to avoid giving them their deserved pay. He elaborates that he will never stop trying to get what black people deserve, by saying that 'we have come to cash this check…that will give us…the riches of freedom’ (2). King continues to discuss the pain and cruelty that black people endure, with more bleak anecdotes. He speaks of his knowledge that many of the people present at the speech have had nights spent in ‘narrow jail cells’ (4) and that many have been ‘veterans of great suffering’ (4). He mentions such atrocities in order to captivate the white people watching and listening, as well as to induce guilt into those who do nothing for civil rights. King was aware that out of the ‘nearly quarter of a million people who came to the Lincoln memorial, one third of them were white’. (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin. Pg 144) He realized that the platform he had could not be wasted and that this was the perfect setting to gain sympathetic exposure for his cause, and so, he famously began his peroration, the repetition of the phrase ‘i have a dream’. ‘a hundred years after the emancipation, MLK could still best express the extent of black population in American society by saying ‘’I have a dream’’. (From Plantation to Ghetto: Revised Edition by August Meier and Elliot Rudwick pg 57) During this part of the speech, King makes clear that he has a dream for America. He dreams that one day his children will be judged ‘not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’ (pg 5) and that the ‘little black girls and boys will be able to join hands with white girls and boys’. (pg 5) This image is an honest and earnest one, an image that black people at the time could relate to and that white people could sympathize with.
In conclusion, MLK provided a speech that not only reached and impacted black people but also brought out fundamental change in white people, due to its relatability, empathetic language and tragic anecdotes. Today we can see that King’s speech was successful, as only months later, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. This was a landmark civil victory and outlawed all discrimination against minorities. ‘’his televised triumph at the feet of Lincoln brought favorable exposure to his movement, and eventually helped secure the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year, after the violent Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama, African Americans secured another victory with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.’’ (History.com Access Date: October 19, 2018. Publisher A&E Television Networks. Last Updated: August 21, 2018 Original Published Date: November 30, 2017)
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