But I also admire him because he was flawed, because sometimes he was afraid, because he wasn’t superhuman.
Perhaps, though, more than anything else, I admire Dr. King’s ability to inspire people to action with well-written words. Here are my top five reasons I find his words so powerful.
5. He understood the value of a key example. We all know the speech from The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, what most of us call the “I Have a Dream” speech, and we all know the line about his four little children and the “content of their character.” That’s what I mean. No one will ever forget that.
4. He knew how to use repetition to his advantage. Take, for example, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech” from April 3, 1968.
And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt (Yeah), and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeongs of Egypt through, or rather, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. (All right)
I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon [Applause], and I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there. (Oh yeah)
I would go on even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire (Yes), and I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there. (Keep on)
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there. (Yeah)
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I’m named had his habitat, and I would watch Martin Luther as he tacks his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there. (All right) But I wouldn’t stop there. (Yeah) [Applause]
I would come on up even to 1863 and watch a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there. (Yeah) [Applause]
That phrase “I would” just builds this amazing amount of energy in the audience. He really was a master of repetition.
3. Dr. King incorporated the ideas of other writers to pull in his various audiences. He uses the prophet Amos’s words – “Justice will run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” – to appeal to the church-going listeners, but then he’s quick to echo President Lincoln with phrases like “five score years ago” and thus, appeals to the secular populace as well. While this practice got him into trouble with his dissertation because he didn’t cite his sources and, therefore, was guilty of plagiarism, as a rhetorical device, it is quite powerful.
2. He wrote powerful arguments to refute his critics and justify his actions and decisions. Take, for instance, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he responds to the criticisms of several ministers who opposite the Birmingham protests. After establishing that he wants to respond to these mens’ concerns because they are sincere and genuine and after building his own authority to speak to this issue, he lays into their argument by striking at the very reasons for the protest while also criticizing their focus on protests and not on the problem itself.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
His language is strong but not attacking. He gives the men room to hear what he has to say while also not softening his point. That’s good writing.
1. Finally, Dr. King wasn’t afraid to speak truth, even when it was challenging or dangerous. Although most of us don’t remember the first part of this speech, Dr. King called us as a nation to the carpet in his “Dream” speech.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We would do well to realize that this check is still, in many ways, uncashed. And as writers, we would do well to remind people when injustices stand unspoken and unaddressed.
Perhaps more than any other person in American history, Dr. King inspires me to be a better, braver person, to stand up for what is right even when its hard, to overcome my own weaknesses and not let them be excuses for my own cowardice, and to remember that words can truly change the world.
What do you admire about Dr. King?
Today in honor of this great, flawed, talented, brave man, please take a few minutes and listen to the entire “I Have a Dream” speech. I guarantee you that you won’t hear it unchanged.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. King, please visit The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. As the authorized publishers of Dr. King’s work, they have the most definitive, in-depth collection of Dr. King’s writing in the world.