Monday, December 15, 2014

The King's Speech

   There has never been a better American orator than Martin Luther King, Jr. Not Daniel Webster not even Lincoln.  King may be most famous for his "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, fifty years ago this month, in December of 1964, is better.

   King begins the speech with obligatory remarks thanking the King of Norway ("Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness"). These remarks give unintended irony to the remarks given King's surname. The use of the word "majesty" is important given it's use in another context later in the speech.

   King turns immediately to acceptance of the prize. He uses the word "accept" unconventionally. King uses it to both mark time and illustrate the struggle he had traveled to represent. He purposefully employs irony using the word "battle" in a speech for a peace prize. The sentence ends in metaphor and abstraction.
 I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. 
   King then "accepts" the prize again, but still not in the conventional way. He tells the assembled he is merely a vessel for those engaged the non-violent battle. Notice he uses a form of majesty, "majestic", and ends the sentence with another abstraction, laying out the ultimate goal of those for whom he is accepting the prize.
I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.
   Using repetition again, King pivots from abstraction to the concrete. He makes it personal. He wants the assembled audience to know the real suffering and risk undertaken by ordinary people for which he has just told the gathered he has accepted the prize. He uses "our children" in the first repetition, then "my people" in the last repetition illustrating how poverty remains as real a shackle as any iron and chain.
 I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death.
 I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.
I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
   King is speaking here not only to the royalty, peerage and intellectuals in his immediate audience. He is reaching out to establish solidarity with "his people" in Mississippi, Alabama and the rest of the South. .

   King returns to acceptance and it's antithesis, again with repetition returning to the larger themes. He ends with what ordinarily would be negative imagery,using it instead as a platform for hope.
I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. 
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.
   The remainder of the speech is an expanded riff on these themes. King's speech was muted and understated, without the firebrand that marked many of his other speeches. He knows he is speaking to an international audience. So, for example, later in this speech, King references the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He was angling for international money and support from the highest of quarters, both financial and intellectual. 

   Classic rhetoric. I could bemoan the lack of eloquence today. I could write about the dumbing down of communication in a digital world in which coarseness seems the norm. Nope. I will just enjoy reading and watching a master at work. 


No comments:

Post a Comment