Tessa Jean August 14, 2015 Rhetorical Analysis of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address, New York State Civil War Centennial Commission, N.Y. Park Sheraton Hotel, Wednesday, September 12, 1962.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed an audience at the Park
Sheraton Hotel on the evening of September 12, 1962. Dr. King was asked to speak
by then Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. The speech was delivered at a
unique point in Dr. King’s life. Dr. King was already nationally known for his work
as a civil rights leader. The following year, Dr. King was arrested in Alabama and
penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham”.
This speech given less than a year before his famous speech at the Lincoln
Memorial. One ironic part of the speech was Dr. King’s mention of Thomas
Jefferson’s fear in 1820, six years before he (Jefferson) died. It turned out that
this speech from Dr. King was only six years before his (Dr. King’s) assassination.
“Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had convened the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission for a dinner celebrating the centennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Although he was invited to speak at the dinner King initially begged off due to a conflicting event. But Rockefeller persuaded King to attend by offering to donate money to help rebuild African-American churches in Georgia that had been intentionally burned”. (Sturtz) (Sturtz) Many of King's oratory qualities are evident in this address. His deep voice
and skill at pausing to emphasize important points, giving the audience an
opportunity to ponder his point. Dr. King also utilized rhetorical
questions in his speech as well as numerous other rhetorical tools.
Nelson Rockefeller, various clergy members and members of the Civil War
Centennial Commission were among those who attended King’s address at
the Sheraton that evening. King was one of many speakers that evening.
Dr. King’s speech addressed the Preliminary Emancipation
Proclamation. After opening with the usual pleasantries, King continued with
very strong diction that elicited an immediate logical and emotional reaction
from the audience. “If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable”. Dr. King then used a series of alliterations throughout the remainder of his
speech. For example, he lamented that America has “proudly professed”, but is “…confused and confounded…” Dr. King made an emotional appeal to his audience. This is evident when he
says “ if we look at our history with honesty and clarity…”. Dr. King compares the
rebellion against equality to an “infection”, “malignant evil” and a “pathological infection…”. The speech followed a perfect chronology. First, Dr. King spoke of the
Declaration of Independence then he moved forward to (his) present day, 1962 and
finally, he looked beyond to the future. He juxtaposed the progress made by the rest
of the country (USA) with the South’s refusal to comply and went as far as to say the
South was “walling itself off…behind an iron curtain of defiance”. Another excellent
use of a metaphor by King. Decades later, anyone reading/listening to King’s
speech can conceive the South’s reluctance to change its practices
regarding equality and basic human rights. He continued the use of metaphors by
describing the unresolved race issues of America as a “largely untreated disease”.
He (King) utilized repetition for the purposes of clarity, emphasis,
amplification and emotional effect by proclaiming “negroes north and south, still live in segregation, housed in slums, eat in segregation, pray in segregation and die in segregation”. Like all of his other speeches, this one proved to be well researched and
planned. King denounced slavery and inequality earlier in his speech. This
denouncement is repeated throughout his speech. He described the mental toll
of slavery and further went on to detail the life of the Negro citizen as being vastly
different from whites.
“Based solely on their color, they have been condemned to a sub-existence,
never sharing the fruits of progress equally. The average income of Negroes is approximately thirty-three hundred dollars per family annually, against fifty-eight hundred dollars for white citizens. This differential tells only part of the story, however, the more terrible aspect is found in the inner structure and quality of the Negro community. It is a community artificially but effectively separated from the dominant culture of our society”. Dr. King, 1962 King went on to say that only the lowest paying, disgusting jobs were
reserved for Negros. This perpetuated the inequality between Negro and White
Society. “The life experience of the Negro in integration remains an exception even in the North”. This highlighted the unmet goals of the Proclamation of Emancipation
100 years later.
“The imposition of inferiority, externally and internally, are the slave chains of today. What the Emancipation Proclamation proscribed in a legal and formal sense has never been eliminated in human terms. By burning in the consciousness of white Americans a conviction that Negroes are by nature subnormal, much of the myth was absorbed by the Negro himself, stultifying his energy, his ambition and his self-respect. The Proclamation of Inferiority has contended with the Proclamation of Emancipation, negating its liberating force. Inferiority has justified the low living standards of the Negro, sanctioned his separation from the majority culture, and enslaved him physically and psychologically. Inferiority as a fetter is more subtle and sophisticated than iron chains; it is invisible and its victim helps to fashion his own bonds”. In the preceding paragraph, King demonstrated the skill he possessed to
show off the stark contrast between Blacks and Whites in America, he made
an indelible impression on his audience. In this case, King specifically contrasted
the Proclamation of Emancipation and what he called the “Proclamation of
Inferiority”. He suggested the latter being responsible for the sub-standard life of
Negroes. His comparisons and contrasts continued as he referenced the
burning of Christian churches in Georgia and the government’s unwillingness to
hold the perpetrators accountable. However, he alleged that if a
similar situation occurred in Washington, the perpetrators would be held
accountable. King’s comparison chronicles the difference in the treatment of
Negroes and Whites. He emphasized “this is the essential texture of freedom and equality for the Negro one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation; and one hundred and eighty-six years after the Declaration of Independence”. He again evoked emotion when he asserted “this somber picture may induce the somber thought that there is nothing to commemorate about the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But tragic disappointments and undeserved defeats do not put an end to life, nor do they wipe out the positive, however submerged it may have become beneath floods of negative experience”. King’s use of powerful alliterations and metaphors are shown in the
quotation above. His choice of words communicated a hopeful feeling despite the
despair of the (then) situation in 1962.
100 years later. Then he expressed his hopes and aspirations for America. A call to
action! “And there is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, and that is to make its declaration of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation”. King offered more comparison by listing some parts of the undeveloped
world where even the “illiterate” and “peasants “have the right to vote”. He again
compared by informing the audience that “in some of our glittering cities in the South, college professors cannot vote, cannot eat and cannot use a library or a park in equality”. Dr. King’s diction sparkles through out his speech. “…Jet speed… horse and buggy” illuminate Dr. King’s speech. “Floods of consumer goods, and super-highways, super-markets and Telstars do not obscure the existence of racial injustice; and this fact more than any other explains why more emerging nations move away from us than toward us. The touchstone is not the sophistication of our industrial devices, but our commitment to freedom and equality. Without faith that we are wedded to these truths, our power and strength become a menace to other peoples and they will maintain their distance until we have justified their confidence. Dr. King eluded that other developing nations would not want associations
with America until racial inequality was addressed appropriately. He further
emphasized that not even the magnitude of the (US) infrastructure will conceal the
degree of racial injustice that existed.
The structure of Dr. King’s speech made it a powerhouse speech. By
providing the chronology, he lends himself to credibility. The choice of diction used
to tell his story created a speech that appeared learned, concrete, passionate and
The tone changed throughout the speech. Earlier in the speech when
King described the state of the Negro in America, he eluded to sadness. The tone
changed to that of anger when he described the gross disparity in wages. Then came
a very somber tone when King stated the four achievements (thus far) of the
Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King exclaimed “The Emancipation Proclamation had four enduring results. First, it gave force to the executive power to change conditions in the national interest on a broad and far-reaching scale. Sec. Second, it dealt a devastating blow to a system of slave- holding and an economy built upon it, which had been muscular enough to engage in warfare on the Federal government. Third, it enabled the Negro to play a significant role in his own liberation with the ability to organize and to struggle, with less of the bestial retaliation his slave status had permitted to his masters. Fourth, it resurrected and restated the principle of equality upon which the founding of the nation rested”. He then created a tone of motivation and a call to action by requesting
that “we must not seek to do it merely to appeal to Asian and African peoples. In the final analysis, racial injustice must be uprooted from American society, because it is morally wrong. It must be uprooted because it stands against all the noble precepts of our Hebraic-Christian heritage. It must be done because segregation substitutes an “I-It” relationship for the “I-Thou” relationship, and relegates persons to the status of things. And so there is a great moral challenge at this hour. And it must be done not merely because it is diplomatically expedient, but because it is morally compelling”. Dr. King ends with a celebration of the great Nation (that is the America)and
a call for unity. A call for denouncement of racial inequality and a seeing the
Proclamation of Emancipation come to full fruition. “There is too
much greatness in our heritage to tolerate the pettiness of race hate. The Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation deserve to live in sacred honor; many generations of Americans suffered, bled and died, confident that those who followed them would preserve the purity of our ideals. Negroes have declared they will die if need be for these freedoms. All Americans must enlist in a crusade finally to make the race question an ugly relic of a dark past”. He then ended the speech with a great sense of hope. He professed “this is the faith that will help us solve the problem. We have a long, long way to go before it is solved. But all of us can at least think of the fact that we have made some strides. And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher who didn’t quite have his grammar right but uttered words of great symbolic profundity and they were uttered in the form of a prayer: “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we wuz.”
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mastery of the spoken word, his
charisma, and sincerity made his speech dynamic. His words live on today!