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Analysis Obama 50 year MLK commemoration

On the 28th of August 2013 Barack Obama held an address to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great march on Washington, which culminated in one of the greatest speeches of all times “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.

We advise you to listen to Obama’s speech while you read the comments below so you can follow the analysis at the same time. To view the speech click here and for a full transcript click here.  For audio and transcript of Dr. Martin Luther King’s original I have a dream speech click here.

Lessons from the speech:

As he admits in this speech, Barack Obama is in many ways a result of the events of the 28th of August 1963. As the first black President of the USA it is easy to draw a direct line from him to Martin Luther King. But this similarity is also Obama’s biggest challenge in this speech. He has to remain himself and remain authentic so the comparison with Martin Luther King Jr. will not be made in rhetorical terms since that is a comparison he cannot win (as he says in the speech “no one can match Kings brilliance”).

So let’s look at the speech, some of the techniques he uses and see how he does it:

Both Obama and MLK speak very slowly with respectively 106 and 102 words per minute. This is 4 times slower then a normal conversation and crucial for large public speeches. In political/diplomatic surroundings protocol is very important. In the opening of your address you acknowledge the presence of the most important people in the room. Note that Obama starts with the King family before he mentions the attending Presidents and Vice President. Perhaps a breach of diplomatic protocol but appropriate for the event and a good way to pay homage.

You have just over a minute to grab the attention of your audience. Use this first minute effectively to go connect at emotional level. Rhetorical techniques such as references can help. Obama starts of with one of the most well known texts in American history: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

He continues his references by placing this speech in line with historical events: “almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise, those truths remained unmet”. This is the same technique as Martin Luther King uses when he opens his speech with “Five score years ago, a great America, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the emancipation proclamation” with which he referred to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address that starts with “Four score and seven years ago” (a score being a time span of 20 years). In this way Obama creates an emotional line from the Gettysburg address to Martin Luther King to his own speech.

He then moves towards his audience by focusing on the importance of the common people on that day instead of on Martin Luther King. He uses references to “seamstresses, and steelworkers, and students, and teachers, maids and pullman porters” to connect. At 7.40 he starts with his first repetition: Because they marched. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed. Because they marched America became more free and more fair..”

The repetition is a strong technique that is often connected with the I have a dream speech of Martin Luther King. Using it in the style of Martin Luther king would give his opponents the opportunity of accusing him of wanting to imitate Martin Luther King. So Obama uses the repetition in a more intimate way avoiding the theatrical style of the reverend. As a reverend Martin Luther King  used a lot of biblical metaphors and expressions, something Obama also seems to avoid consciously with only one religious reference at 9.55 knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Since the focus of this speech is not just to commemorate Martin Luther King’s address but also to give it modern political significance he also avoids too many direct references to King. But in order to pay tribute to one of the greatest speeches of all times he has woven a few subtle references in the text, see for instance at 10.30 people of all colors and creeds, and fight alongside one another and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth. (MLK: One day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

He is almost halfway through his speech when he makes the transition from 1963 to 2013 leading it in with the technique of the opposition at 13.40 They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. He explains that the march was not just about moral and legal equality but also about practical equality. Equal pay, equal chances, equal job opportunities and that it is in this practical implementation that the dream has fallen short.

Without mentioning his republican opponents he paints a clear divide between himself and his political adversaries, whom he deems responsible for the shortcomings in the implementation of King’s dream.

But he knows he cannot leave his audience with them feeling bad about the economy and their future outlook. So at 23.20 he begins his conclusion. Note the strong rhetorical techniques, his voice going up at the end of the sentences, his rise in energy level and widening of his eyes. His words, body language and energy all project that he is coming to the climax of his speech. He turns on the ethos volume by using that strongest of techniques: the repetition: That’s where courage comes from and With that courage.

 That’s where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from. And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person.  With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them. With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.

He continues his conclusion with references that connect at many levels. They are people the audience can indentify with (teacher, mother, father, veteran, you); they make the abstract concept of equality concrete and it connects 1963 with 2013. 26.00 That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. (That successful businessman who doesn’t have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who’s down on his luck — he’s marching. The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody’s son — she’s marching. The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father, especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching. The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are marching. Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship — you are marching.

 Before ending he pays one last homage to Martin Luther King: And when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace and ends his speech in the same way he began it with a reference to another historical text all Americans know, the pledge of allegiance: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This circle gives a nice and easy to follow structure to the speech and shows that he comes to the end (it opens the clap trap). It is however unfortunate that he does not pronounce this last sentence clearly and ends with his voice bending up in pitch. By fumbling this last sentence and running of to the side he gives the impression he his glad the speech is over, which is a pity since it leaves the listener feeling slightly unsatisfied after an otherwise good and successful speech.