Martin Luther King’s oratory: beyond a dream

Dr Martin Luther King


It’s no secret that Martin Luther King spoke with masterful authority. Nor that he developed a commanding, sing-song oratorical style. Nor that his influences were drawn from the Southern Baptist tradition of his native Atlanta to the Ancient Greeks and Mahatma Gandhi.

From “the mighty mountains of New York” to “the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado” Dr King’s legacy demonstrates the value of powerful communication and great speech writing.

What, perhaps, is less well known, particularly here in the UK, was his breadth of causes and his rich rhetorical range.

King established himself not only as a champion for racial justice but a staunch advocate for peace in Vietnam, and an end to poverty through the redistribution of power and wealth.

As for his range, there is so much more to Martin Luther King’s speech giving than “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Washington Memorial in 1963.

We selected his Dream as a contender for greatest ever speech. But here are some other great speeches given by a master – perhaps THE master – of the spoken word. We’ve given a brief introduction to each, selected some memorable phrases and linked to a video of the event.

“Our God is Marching On” – Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965


Following the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, many consider King’s “Our God is Marching On” speech to be the definitive speech of the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement. This stage was all about legal and political rights. The fight for economic equality would follow.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
.”

Repetitive call and response is a technique used a great deal in the Southern Baptist clergy. The final line here was borrowed from Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister born in 1810, who called for the abolition of slavery. 200 years later, the first African American President of the United would commission these words to be sown into a rug in the Oval Office.

Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway. Delivered Dec. 10, 1964.


Age 35, King was at this point the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Listen for his trademark use of repetition and his characteristic knack for a visual metaphor:

We have mankind as “mere flotsam and jetsam on the river of life” while at the conclusion of this address the“starless midnight of racism and war” gives way to “the bright daybreak of peace”.

Civilisation and violence are antithetical concepts.
Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.
Sooner or later, all the peoples of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

I refuse to accept despair as a final response to the ambiguities of history. As
I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.
And I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence, Riverside Church, New York. Delivered April 4, 1967


King courageously called for an end to the War in Vietnam and spoke truth to power. He demonstrated the great rhetorical trick of asking a question to point your audience to your desired conclusion.

It’s a brilliant speech, whose relevance was demonstrated when quoted in the House of Commons in January 2019 by MP David Lammy: “There comes a time when silence in betrayal”.

I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.

Shall we say the odds are too great?
Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?
Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?
Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee. Delivered April 3, 1968.


On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The very next day, while standing on a balcony on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he was shot dead.

In hindsight, the message of hope he conveyed to those in attendance on the eve of his murder takes on a haunting quality. This speech shows him at the height of his rhetorical powers right until the end.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’
Now, we are poor people.
Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor.

Never stop and forget that collectively — that means all of us together — collectively we are richer than all the nations of the world, with the exception of nine.
Did you ever think about that?
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

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