Monthly Archives: January 2015

Martin Luther King: Rhetoric & Oratory in “I Have a Dream”

Dr. Martin Luther King, August, 1963
Dr. Martin Luther King, August, 1963

It’s time to get some posts back up here. In a better-late-than-never celebration of Martin Luther King  Day and in acknowledgment of having recently seen the fine and moving film “Selma”,* I want to point you to a post about Dr. King.

Brain Pickings picked up this piece by presentation expert Nancy Duarte that closely examines King’s greatest oration, the “I Have a Dream Speech” (which still moves me after so many viewings). Writing about Duarte’s analysis of the speech, Ms. Papova observes:


Duarte notes the Dr. King spoke in short bursts more reminiscent of poetry than of long-winded lecture-speak and highlights his most powerful rhetorical devices — repetition, metaphors, visual words, references to political documents, citations from sacred texts and spiritual songs — in a fascinating visualization of the speech . . . .

While it’s quite unlikely that we’ll ever speak to a crowd of 250,000 in front of the statue of Lincoln on a day that changed America,  we may need to speak and write in a situation that requires eloquence. We can benefit from the rhetorical devices that Dr. King deployed and from Ms. Duarte’s  exemplary use of a visual tool to enhance her appreciation of the speech. For trial lawyers, especially, we do have occasions–such as a closing argument in a jury trial–where we have to attempt to move (or, one hopes, consolidate the opinions of) an audience of jurors.

King achieved much of his success by tapping into the fundamental principles and beliefs of most Americans, at least those not so blinded by racism and fear as to cherish and live the values of about liberty, equality, and justice. From those premises, Dr. King built his speech to move his audiences to action. (I use the plural “audiences” because even we today became a new audience with each listening. ) And as the film “Selma” demonstrates, people did march and risk (and sacrifice) their lives to the visions he so brilliantly expounded. If, as the ancients suggested, the true test of oratory is to move people to march , then Dr. King belongs in the pantheon of the greatest orators.

* Although I was dismayed at the misrepresentation of Lyndon Johnson’s role in this story.