This past Monday, in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the slubs paid homage to our academic foundations. First, we sat down to watch Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given in the formidable shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 200,000 marchers on August 28th, 1963.
If you have never heard a recording of Dr. King giving this speech himself, it’s entirely worth the 17 minutes to experience. He was a true wordsmith, a master orator, and the way he draws listeners in to the hypothetical and idealistic world of his dreams is an art form. The imagery used in this speech is legendary. His words powerfully unfurl themselves in waves over the crowd and they react in turn, as you will too.
Notice how Dr. King repeats key phrases at the beginning of the sentences of select paragraphs in his speech. He does this to over-emphasize his point, in effect stirring up the audience and clearly driving his message home. The slubs would like to point out that this rhetorical technique is known as anaphora.
After we had spent some time discussing the legacy of Dr. King’s dream and the relevancy it holds for America today, we moved on to watch President Obama’s 2008 election victory speech. This speech, as well, is rich with imagery. Particularly powerful is President Obama’s story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106 year-old American whose lifetime has witnessed the most drastic events of the 20th century. His speech is a true lesson in election-time patriotism.
As a Political Science major I recognize the craftsmanship in both of these pieces. Dr. King and President Obama take full advantage of our uniquely American brand of civil religion, infusing time-honored messages of American patriotism with (Christian) religious undertones to create a political-spiritual cocktail of words. (To conceptualize American civil religion, examine the text of nearly any speech given by George Bush directly following September 11th – he portrays America as a city on a hill, a super-unique nation where the word “democracy” evokes the same type of spiritual reverence as “righteousness”.) Each section of these two speeches acts as a subconscious cue for the audience to respond appropriately. Based on the textual meaning of a phrase or the tone of the orator’s voice, each listener knows what he or she is supposed to feel – elation, approval, hope, victory, perseverance, thoughtfulness, joy. Dr. King and President Obama guide their audiences through a range of emotional reactions, and by the end of their speeches we’ve all experienced the intangible influence of their words.
As citizens, though, my roommates and I can appreciate the social value of Dr. King’s and President Obama’s message. Each speaks of a nation of freedom and responsibility, where all inhabitants have a right and an obligation to change their worlds to achieve a holistically “better” standard. They extol the virtues of the individual, but they are careful to remind us that our strength as a nation lies in our collective ability to believe in the potential of America. Can Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech still resonate as powerfully today as it did 50 years ago? Perhaps not in the same sense as it did during the Civil Rights Movement, but the idea that we can and must achieve the social vision outlined in the Declaration of Independence is the undercurrent which directs nearly every conversation in our public government arenas. History will look on these two speeches as snapshots of our citizenry’s particular and endearing brand of social capital.
We have so many blessings as Americans, not the least of which is the right to access our own governmental institutions (though this right is not currently extended to every individual living on our soil). Dr. King and President Obama reminded Kat, Anna, Nora and I of this on Monday, and for that we are grateful.
“…Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled…we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.” – President Barack Obama, 2008