The Immortal Speaker
Martin Luther King is considered a genius in public speaking by many. When he lived, he possessed the incredible ability to capture and convince a crowd with only his words. Students today analyze the techniques used in his works in order to obtain a similar effect when they write essays or deliver speeches. Three of his most effective techniques are his biblical references and allusions, his use of appeals, and his use of opposites. These techniques are used widely in persuasive writing because they all fall under the umbrella term, “pathos,” but King was able to use them in ways that changed America forever.
King was a reverend, so it is natural for his works to be filled with biblical references and allusions. For example, even though A Letter From Birmingham Jail is dripping with sarcasm, King takes time to be serious and include biblical support for his belief that extremism can have a positive connotation. In “I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King mentions time and time again that all people are God’s children, and that with faith his dream can become reality. In finding intelligent ways to use his knowledge of the Bible, King bends people’s emotions and sways their opinions of the way things should be. He was able to do this partly because the Bible was a common interest to whites and blacks of all ages, allowing his words to resonate within a wide spectrum of people. Another reason his references and allusions were so effective is because he knew his religion so well that he could pick out exactly the support he needed to make his point. King’s use of the biblical history is undeniably effective in a logical sense, but it is even more so because of the emotional effects the uses have on the audience.
King’s works are peppered with appeals to sympathy, patriotism, faith, justice, and numerous other kinds of pathos. He justified his appearance in Birmingham because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and justice was something much of his audience desperately wanted. King’s periodic sentence in A Letter From Birmingham Jail is coated in appeals, pulling at the reader’s sympathy with every mention of violence to the undeserving and injustice to children. “I Have a Dream” is filled with appeals to hope and faith from promising to “cash a check…to which every American [has fallen] heir” to when he openly states “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” With his carefully chosen words, the emotions of King’s audience are like putty in his hands. Listeners and readers feel obligated in a sense to join King in his campaign for equality.
Using opposites in his speeches and essays allows King to touch people from remarkably different backgrounds all at once. In “I Have a Dream,” King calls out to people from eight different states and links them with their mountains. By creating this unity between apparent opposites, King makes all of America burn with the desire to “let freedom ring.” In the final paragraph of “I Have a Dream,” King describes a day when “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” will all be united in freedom. He makes it a point to connect opposites here in order to highlight the idea of equality despite differences. For a similar reason, King writes in A Letter From Birmingham Jail “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This statement resonates with any reader who has felt like an outsider and sparks sympathy in those who have not.
The three stylistic devices are all connected to pathos, one of the pillars of public speaking. Pathos is particularly effective in King’s works because of their persuasive nature. His ability to influence the emotions of his audience is a large part of the reason why his campaign for equality proved to be such a success. His mastery of biblical allusions and references, appeals, and opposites allow him to persuade effectively, and change the course of American history in the process.