The ignominy of repressed freedom and equality for the black community has been rhetorically expressed throughout the past century, with the sole purpose of achieving widespread recognition for civil and human rights. The struggle for African-American egalitarianism reached its defining moment by 1964, when aspiring leaders, specifically Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, manifested their indictments through colorful orations, directed toward both the white and black community across America. In King’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” the entire nation is presented with an “uncompromising critique of injustice” from an eschatological view of the country itself (Lischer 8). Malcolm X, on the other hand, delivers a blazing allocution entitled “The Black Revolution,” before an audience consisting primarily of Caucasians, informing them of the violent reality of the civil rights movement. At the same time however, both speakers attempt to draw sympathy and ignite a sense of awareness of the injustice and suffering caused by racism, segregation, and discrimination toward the black populace. King and X achieve this effect by strategically utilizing florid diction and appealing to their audience’s compassion, rationality, and assuring the people of their credibility.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prominent writer, minister, and civil rights activist, inherently focuses on the “Negro’s experience of pain, broken promises, and now rising rage in a country” (Lischer 8). His speech introduces a passive take on the black community’s struggle, yet enforces a sense of urgency that causes the basic white and black community to rationalize the desolate condition that King attempts to portray. He utilizes lovely metaphors, imagery, and anaphoric repetition to convey the greatness of the black man’s suffering as he recounts:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still anguished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition (King 532).
King effectively portrays in this passage, the pangs of racism that subtly evokes a sense of shame and discomfort for his white listeners, and a sense of identification within his fellow black congregation. Expressive words such as “withering injustice,” “captivity,” “sadly crippled,” “manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination,” “lonely island,” “anguished,” and “shameful condition” support King’s emphasis on the affliction experienced by the African Americans. King also aligns himself with President Lincoln, “a great American…who signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” in order to gain further accord from his ignorant white audience (King 532).
King’s rendition of broken promises and rising rage is a most compelling approach to his listeners, as his words are clothed in poetic language to conceal his underlying aggression (Lischer 8). King impresses upon both ends of his audience the injustice of defaulting America’s “colored citizens” their “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…and guaranteed the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (King 532). Such discrimination for such a prolonged period of time leads to King’s emphasis “to remind America of the fierce urgency of now” (532). He enforces this sense of immediacy by his use of anaphoric repetition in the passage:
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children (King 533).
King’s utilization of imagery helps listeners to paint an embellished picture of the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” that “will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality” (King 533). This necessitates the Caucasian mass of listeners to understand that “it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro” (533).
King assails the nation’s misdemeanors in attractive metaphors to alleviate his “prophetic blows” (Lischer 8). For example, King encourages his fellow blacks to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive” (King 533). Throughout his oration, King assures the black community reparation for their grievances, and provides words of encouragement and strength to persevere. He commands:
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair (King 534).
At the same time, King indicates to the white folk that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges” (King 533). Although King’s words are intimidating, his means of achieving equality are hardly oriented by evoking violence or conflict between the white and black community. On the contrary, King emphatically seeks to promote a nonviolent revolution, for he states:
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 (King 533).
King advocates a peaceful approach in the black struggle for civil and human rights. He reasons with his audience, stressing that “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people; for many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with out destiny and that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (King 533). This is a part of King’s dream that is directed toward both the black and white people, suggesting the prospect of peace and harmony between them.
Like Dr. King, Malcolm X, a writer, lecturer, and political activist for the Black Revolution, tends to render pictorial messages of repressed freedom to his friends and enemies of both the white and black community in America. X skillfully employs similar rhetoric approaches as did King, in order to instill public concern for such an event. However, he progresses to demonstrate boiling tensions of racial discrimination and the injustice of inequality between the Caucasians and Negroes with much more aggression. X believes that for years, America has been on the verge of igniting the fuse to a massive racial powder keg, a metaphor X uses throughout his speech as a covert way of motivating his listeners to actively participate in the revolution. He conveys these ideas primarily by exhibiting pieces of evidence from recent events and personal observations that parallel with his chief concern – the explosion of a Black Revolution.
Unlike King, X does not bathe his rhetoric with lovely metaphors or poetic phrases to convey a sense of urgency. On the contrary, X displays a tone of antipathy and determination in order to attain immediate attention and action from his listeners. Yet, X’s lack of tactfulness does not detract from the effectiveness of his speech. In fact, his aggression serves to express the seriousness of this situation by instilling fear in the minds of white political leaders. He relays this fear and intimidation by pointing out the arising emotions of “bitterness, animosity, hostility, unrest, and impatience with the racial intolerance…experienced at the hands of the white West” (X 540). X warns his audience of white liberals that the days of nonviolence are over and the powder-keg situation should be taken seriously. He provides an example from his personal experience to demonstrate that:
the black man has ceased to turn the other cheek, that he has ceased to be non-violent, that he has ceased to feel that he must be confined by all these restraints that are put upon him by white society in struggling for what white society says he was supposed to have had a hundred years ago (X 541).
In this passage, X verifies the reality of the possibilities of a violent revolution. His words are precise, direct, and straight to the point, revealing the simplicity of the matter at hand. In fact, X presents his listeners the basic options of taking his warning or leaving it. Either way, the revolution is bound to take place and “if [one] takes the warning, perhaps [they] can still save [themselves]” (X 542).
Malcolm X, like Dr. King, aligns his ad hoc fight for freedom with authoritative figures, George Washington and Patrick Henry. This rhetoric approach may not appear as emphasized as X’s appeals to his audience’s logos and pathos, however its function is to draw attention primarily from white liberalists who “look upon [Washington and Henry] as patriots and heroes,” to display some sort of common ground between X, himself and the white liberalists (X 542). As respected leaders of America, George Washington’s and Patrick Henry’s association with violence, justifies X’s own message of an explosive revolution that is pointed toward a violent direction. X enables further identification with his Caucasian audience as he recounts how he “grew up with white people” and how “all of our people have the same goals, the same objective…freedom, justice, equality. All of us want recognition and respect as human beings” (X 543). This not only helps X’s audience to identify with his words, but it also addresses their spirit of independence and autonomy.
Malcolm X attempts to recruit as many participants in the revolution as possible. He pertains to accomplish this goal by emphasizing the need for action, whether violence is integrated or not. He asserts:
This is a real revolution. Revolution is always based on land…Revolutions are never fought by turning the other cheek. Revolutions are never based upon love-your-enemy and pray-for-those-who spitefully-use-you…Revolutions are based upon bloodshed…Revolutions are never based upon negotiations…Revolutions overturn systems (X 542).
In this passage, X employs anaphoric repetition to instill the concept of a revolution. His words are forceful and almost inspiring to his audience of black nationalists. X’s aggressive overtone, however, does not necessarily imply the need for a violent revolution. Although past revolutions have been bloody, X asserts that “America today is at a time or in a day or at an hour where she is the first country on this earth that can actually have a bloodless revolution…America is the only country in history in a position to bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed” (X 547). Here, X covertly attempts to promote a peaceful revolution by presenting the mere possibility of a nonviolent revolution. X goes on to state, that “the only way without bloodshed that this [revolution] can be brought about is that the black man has to be given full use of the ballot in every one of the fifty states” (X 547). This appeals to the white, authoritative figures in America, who are concerned about the uprising and would go far to prevent bloodshed from occurring.
Both Dr. King and Malcolm X are aware of the prolonged inequality between the white and black communities and attempt to publicly relay their indictments of the situation through use of different rhetoric strategies. Dr. King presents his argument with a passive overtone and embellished language that allow listeners to respond with sympathy and a renewed hope for justice and equality. On the other hand, Malcolm X forcefully conveys the urgent need for whites to be prepared for a revolution and for blacks to get involved immediately. He achieves this through his straightforward oration that motivates if not intimidates his audience to respond actively. Nonetheless, both leaders share one common purpose in their speeches – that is a future showing “all of God’s children, Black men and white men…able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. We are free at last!'” (King 535).
Chun, Elizabeth. “Freedom Come, Freedom Go.” 8 Dec. 2003. Student Paper. Prof. Kris Bromberger. Seminar: Writing 39B. University of California, Irvine.
Elizabeth Chun, Psychology and Social Behavior major and Studio Art minor student at the University of California, Irvine, asserts that King and Malcolm X use varied rhetorical approaches to ultimately promote a nonviolent revolution. Chun draws evidence from each speaker’s oration during the civil rights movement to demonstrate the use of each man’s rhetoric approach and its effect on their audience. Her purpose is to persuade readers her understanding of how audience and purpose determine a writer’s rhetorical decisions, in order to enlighten them as to why these decisions have been made. Chun directs her essay toward an audience of educated readers who do not fully understand rhetorical analysis and are interested in attaining insight from this paper.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” The Anteater Reader. Ed. Ray Zimmerman and Carla Copenhaven. 7th Ed. Boston, Pearson Custom Publishing, 2003. 532-535.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writer, minister, and civil rights activist, illustrates that blacks still suffer prejudice and repression of freedom. King utilizes rhetoric and literary techniques to persuade his audience to maintain hope and motivation throughout the civil rights movement. His purpose is to motivate the people who have been “cheated of their equal rights” in order to demonstrate that freedom is attainable. His speech is directed toward both the black and white community across the nation to elevate his cause and dream.
Lischer, Richard. “Our Greatest Speech.” The Christian Century 120 (2003): 8-10.
Richard Lischer, teacher and author at Duke Divinity School, suggests that Dr. King’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” is in fact a prophetic judgment that emphasizes an “eschatological view of America” through scriptural references. Lischer provides a rhetorical analysis of King’s speech through objective examples that support Lischer’s claim. Lischer aims to convey King’s style and performance as a public speaker, in order to persuade readers that “I Have a Dream” is in fact one of the greatest written speeches. Lischer targets a general audience that has an interest in Dr. King’s legacy as a civil rights leader and Baptist preacher.
X, Malcolm. “The Black Revolution.” The Anteater Reader. Ed. Ray Zimmerman and Carla Copenhaven. 7th Ed. Boston, Pearson Custom Publishing, 2003. 539-547.
Malcolm X, writer, lecturer, and political activist, claims that America is in a position “to bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed.” (547) X draws from personal experiences and historical events such as the black slavery and the civil-rights struggle to support his argument. Malcolm X attempts to demonstrate America’s explosive condition and how the fuse could spark at anytime, in order to forewarn the public about the Black Revolution. His speech is directed toward both Caucasians and African-Americans – the public so both may be aware of the tension and have an idea to what is going on.