Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) is one of the great orators of the twentieth century. Several of his speeches have become part of the ‘canon’ of great oratory, and because he was delivering many of his speeches at landmark political events and in the era of television, we are lucky enough to hear him speak the words he wrote.
But Martin Luther King couldn’t just give a great speech: he could write with all the rhetorical fervour a great orator requires, without ever sacrificing truth and sincerity at the altar of a nice-sounding phrase. His other writings, which include letters, sermons, and essays, reveal a writer who was concerned with communicating immediately and accessibly with his readers, using the English language effectively and economically to convey his points.
He could also be allusive, referring to biblical language and stories among other things. Let’s take a closer look at five of the best speeches and other writings by one of the greatest figures in the Civil Rights movement, and in modern American history.
Martin Luther King was still in his late twenties when he delivered this early speech on 17 May 1957. The speech was given on the three-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 concerning Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the legal case which ruled that US state laws which established racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.
Using the rhetorical device known as anaphora, which involves repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, King brilliantly outlines the reasons why African Americans should be given voting rights in the South by repeating the words ‘give us the ballot and we will …’
King delivered the speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and it is now regarded as one of his best speeches.
Sometimes known by the alternative title ‘Our God Is Marching On!’, this speech was given on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, following the completion of the Selma to Montgomery March which took place on March 25, 1965.
He acknowledges that some 8,000 people had undertaken the ‘mighty walk’ from Selma, Alabama, with some of the marchers literally sleeping in the mud. Their bodies are tired and their feet are sore. But people are asking how much longer it will take to effect real change in civil rights in the US.
And in a famous quotation, King delivers a hopeful message to his listeners, responding rhetorically to the question ‘how long?’ by declaring, ‘How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’
One of Martin Luther King’s most famous – and most important – writings, ‘Letter to Birmingham Jail’ is an open letter which King wrote on 16 April 1963 while he was imprisoned in the jail in Birmingham, Alabama.
In the letter, King urges that everyone has a moral responsibility to break laws which are unjust: civil disobedience, following Thoreau, becomes necessary. It is also sometimes expedient to take direct action rather than pursuing justice through the approved but long-winded legal channels.
It is in this letter that King writes the famous line, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’.
This is another one of King’s iconic speeches, delivered on 3 April 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was also his last speech before his assassination in 1968. Indeed, he was shot the very next day.
The context of the speech was the Memphis sanitation strike, which began on 12 February 1968 in response to the deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. King joined the strike and lent his support for it, accusing the officials in Memphis of not dealing honestly with the sanitation works of the city.
Towards the end of the speech, King appears to foretell his own untimely death, saying that he may not get there with them in their struggle for justice. (All of King’s key political work can really be summarised as a rhetorical crusade against injustice.) He states that he is not afraid to die: he was aware of the many threats to his life that he faced. The speech is brave, stoic, and a rhetorical tour de force.
Let’s conclude this selection of Martin Luther King’s best speeches and writings with the best-known of all of his speeches. The occasion for King’s speech was the march on Washington, which saw some 210,000 men, women, and children gather at the Washington Monument in August 1963, before marching to the Lincoln Memorial. King reportedly stayed up until 4am the night before he was due to give the speech, writing it out.
1963 was the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which then US President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) had freed the African slaves in the United States in 1863. But a century on from the abolition of slavery, King points out, black Americans still are not free in many respects.
Although King’s speech has become known by the repeated four-word phrase ‘I Have a Dream’, which emphasises the personal nature of his vision, his speech is actually about a collective dream for a better and more equal America which is not only shared by many Black Americans but by anyone who identifies with their fight against racial injustice, segregation, and discrimination.