Political Rhetoric: Brief History
Many ancient kingdoms such as the Egyptian Empire and the Mesopotamia Empire highly valued eloquence. A leader would address the public and he would be expected to convince it over various issues. In order to achieve this, such a leader would be expected to be appealing in his speech (Bolman & Deal 1997, p. 65).
However, the current political rhetoric traces its roots to the ancient Greece. Aristocrats governed the Athenians. They strongly believed that a man’s worth is determined by his or material wealth. As Corcoran (1979, p. 56) states, this society had a clear groupings of individuals as per their amount of wealth.
The speech had to console to the bereaved. Bottery (2001, p. 64) notes that when the Athenians demanded for democracy, the leadership realized that rhetoric was a very useful tool that would help one acquire and stay in power. The speech had to use various stylistic devices and the speaker had to be eloquent enough.
Hansen (2007, p. 79) observes that the speaker had to tell the audience what they wanted to hear, not what they ought to be told. This was the beginning of political rhetoric, which is currently in use.
Historical Background of the Speech: “I Have a Dream”
Martin Luther King Junior was a Black American who was born and brought up in a society that racial segregation was rife. McCarthy (1991, p. 67) argued that King found the situation a little intriguing. Being a black in this country was by itself a condemnation, as McCarthy and Carter (1994, p. 81) observe.
As Austin (2007, p.40) observes, the courts were openly biased and whenever a black had a case against a white, the black would most certainly loose despite the evidence that might have been available to validate the case. Baum, Viens and Slatin (2005, p. 60) report that he believed that the blacks, just as whites, had the ability to achieve the most out of their lives and transform the society positively.
This speech came at the right time. Lindon (2006, p. 75) reports that in 1963, many African nations were being liberated from the colonial rule and the entire world was feeling liberated. In America, the blacks were joining positions of affluence but racism was still an impediment. King’s speech therefore came at a time when it was needed most. This speech was therefore accepted in different quarters and by different races.
The blacks, the Indians and other minority groups felt that the speech was a call for liberation from the chain of segregation that had affected this society for a very long time (Hurst 2007, p. 47). Even a large section of the whites warmly received this speech, as a beacon of hope to all.
Blank (2004, p. 39) argued that this was one of the most famous speeches in the world ever. The effect of this speech was gradual but heavily felt. Just as he said in the speech itself, it came as a rude awakening to the American leadership and the society.
The society realized that there was need to have a society that was fair for all. President J.F. Kennedy and many other senior government officials, who were whites, felt that as per the message of the speech, it was time for liberation, a time to unite the nation not as per the race but the ambitions of the nation, ambitions that every American had both black American and white American.
This would saw many blacks accepted in many forums. They assumed various leadership positions. Soon, America would have the first black American secretary of state that is, Collin Powel.
The current president, Barrack Obama, can be seen to be the true realization of this speech for he was judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. This is the dream that Martin Luther King had in his speech, a dream that was to be realized forty years after his assassination.
Themes from the Speech
The speech ‘I Have a Dream’ has one central theme and a number of other supportive themes. As stated in the background, the speech was precipitated by the social injustices that were mated towards the blacks. The society was racially segregated. He said, “The Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination”.
The central theme that comes out from this speech is racial discrimination. The society was highly polarised along the ethnical lines. He said, “One day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”. Coherence of this theme has been maintained in this speech by use of other supportive themes.
A supportive theme that comes out in the speech is social injustice. The blacks, who were discriminated against, also faced social injustice. He said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children”.
This speech also brings another theme of irresponsible leadership. King lamented that the country’s leadership had failed to implement policies that would ensure that the nation was governed in a free and fair manner. Through this, the main theme is brought to focus.
Introduction of New Subjects
This speech is sequential. The message flows freely from one paragraph to another because of the way new subjects are introduced. King was keen to ensure that each new subject drew relevance from the immediate previous subject.
In paragraph eight, he talked about a revolution that would lead to gaining of justice. The subject that followed in paragraph nine was a peaceful society, meaning that in the process of seeking justice, let there would be peace. The language used in this speech was very current. Although based on the duration when the American society was racial, the language in this speech is modest.
Perspective of the Speech
The perspective of this speech is forward looking than backward looking. King dreamt of the future, he dreamt of a better society, a society that would be free from discrimination, a society that all could be viewed as equals. Although the speech refered to past events, much of the focus was on future. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”.
Usage of Personal Pronouns
This speech has heavily employed the usage of personal pronouns. This is important to make the audience develop attachment to the speech. According to Kohl (2000, p. 43), a good speech should always make it easy for the audience to relate the message to its own context. King said he had a dream. The audience could easily relate his dream to its own experiences when he directly referred to them.
In his introductory speech, he said, “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” (McCarthy & Carter 1994, p. 30). The use of the two personal pronouns links him with the audience hence making the audience feel that the speaker is part of them.
Rhetorical devices are very important in political speeches. As Aristotle, (1998, p. 56) says, political speeches should be as entertaining as music. A listener should be mesmerized by the speech.
This is because the speeches are always meant to sway his or her general pattern of behavior. Just as a musician uses different instruments and good voice, a politician should employ the use of rhetorical devices to capture the attention of the audience.
As Austin (2007, p. 78) observes, imagery is very important when making a political discourse. By drawing similarities from objects, a speech creates an image in the minds of the audience. Imagery can be used in two forms which are the metaphor and simile. This speech has heavily used both forms of imagery that is, simile and metaphor.
He said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Bush 2003, p. 57). This simile is used to show the magnitude of their expectation. Justice is compared to a mighty stream. The speech also employs metaphors in various stages.
He said, “… staggered by the winds of police brutality.” The sufferings from police brutality are directly compared to wind. He says, “America has defaulted on this promissory note….” The auth sworn by the founding fathers of America is directly referred to as a ‘promissory note’.
Although both serve the same purpose, metaphors are always considered to have a larger effect that simile because instead of saying one thing resembles the other, it directly says that that one thing is the other. In the above example, the force of the police is not said to be causing instability to an individual like wind. Rather, it is referred to as the wind itself.
Many speeches always employ allusion in order to draw the attention of the listener. When a speech is made, the speaker would need to authenticate the speech with some evidence from what the society is well aware of or identifies with. Many speeches take allusions from the bible, especially when the speaker is a Christian and the target audience subscribe to the same religion.
This speech has alluded to a number of bible teachings. Literal allusions have been made in this speech in reference to the past speeches. He said, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note”
This speech has used references of the speech made by the great Americans and the binding statements they made when America was gaining its independence way back in 1776. This would help in validating his claim.
Cheminais (2006, p. 39) says that human beings are naturally forgetful and at times, it may be necessary to remind them of incidents of the past to make them appreciate the current situation and make them act as per the expectations of the speaker.
This speech has also used allusions from the bible. He said, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Gardner 2006, p. 67). This society highly valued the bible and its content.
Rhetorical Figures: Repetition
As Cogan and Webb (2002, p. 56) observe, political discourses are always very demanding. The speech need to captivate the audience. As this authors note, the audience can easily get bored in case the speech lacks ‘flavor’. Rhetorical figures help in ensuring that a speech is interesting and captivating to the audience. Repetition is one such important device. When used, they help the speech to lay emphasis on the message at hand.
Anaphora refers to the use of a pronoun or other word in a sentence, to avoid repeating the previously mentioned noun. It is one of the most popular repetitive devices in a political discourse. Darder and Rodolfo (2003, p. 103) say that the use of anaphora is one of the ways through which a speaker can convince an audience that he or she has a mastery of both the content of his speech and the language in use.
In this speech, anaphora was used in several places. King says, “…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village…” King has avoided repeating the word freedom and instead used the pronoun it. According to Griswold (2004, p. 38), great speeches always leave listeners with one important thing, which is hope. Anaphora helps in achieving this. In fact, this speech has heavily used it.
The rule of three is another repetitive device that may help enrich a political discourse. It also helps bring out emphasis in a speech. In this case, the speaker would bring in a historic analogy, give its effect and then give an example in the current setting that the audience can easily relate to.
In this speech, King brought the historic event when the founding fathers signed the document that declared the independence of the nation. This had the effect of freeing all members of society in this society. However, the society had not offered a section of this population full freedom, as witnessed in various unjust cases. The speech also used rhetorical questions. He said, “When will you be satisfied?”
Other literal devices, such as alliteration and parallelism have been employed in various incidents in the speech. Alliteration is always employed as a sign of mastery of a language. In this speech, King says, “…we must make….” As stated above, this would make this speech more appealing.
Alliteration is also seen when he says, “… the mighty mountains of New York.” Parallelism also helps in ensuring that a speech is and captivating to all the listeners. It also helps in laying emphasis over an issue.
In this speech, King says, “… when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village.” King emphasized that people were expected to unite and develop the sense of belonging in order to achieve their dreams.
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