Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is an opportunity to learn from his strategic thinking and mastery of rhetoric.
Consider King’s powerful words about the civil rights struggle, which echo today in the climate battle:
We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’
Note how King repeatedly uses key figures of speech — alliteration, metaphor — and extends the metaphor of another master of rhetoric, Shakespeare (Julius Caeser), all of which are classic oratorical strategies (see “How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, Part 1: Study the figures of speech and Shakespeare”).
I think science has mostly told us what it can about the fiercely urgent need to act swiftly to avoid adding the bleached bones and jumbled residues of our civilization to the pile (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice”). Our urgent need now is for much more persuasiveness (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”). I have a dream that progressives will some day have the winning words to match their vital ideas.
King’s most famous speech illustrates the rhetorical principle of foreshadowing, as I discuss in my unpublished book on rhetoric, excerpted below:
As a theatrical device, the essence of foreshadowing can be found in Anton Chekhov’s advice to a novice playwright: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Create anticipation and then fulfill the listener’s desire.
Foreshadowing is related to the figure of speech ominatio (Latin for omen), which, one Renaissance rhetoric text explains is “when we do show & foretell what shall hereafter come to pass, which we gather by some likely sign, and in ill things we foretell it, to the intent that heed may be paid, and the danger of avoided; and in good things to stir up expectation and hope.”
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has a soothsayer famously and futilely warn Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”-a foreshadowing ominatio that Caesar famously and fatally ignores: “He is a dreamer,” shrugs Caesar. “Let us leave him.”
Bob Dylan’s tragic “Like a Rolling Stone” heroine is similarly warned, and by many: “People’d call, say, ‘Beware doll, you’re bound to fall’ “-which she also unwisely pays no heed to: “You thought they were all kiddin’ you.”
Dramatic foreshadowing has an even more important rhetorical counterpart. The golden rule of speechmaking is “Tell ’em what what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ‘em.” The first part of that triptych is the rhetorical foreshadowing of the main idea of your speech, the introduction of the dominant theme of your remarks.
I HAVE A DREAMI can think of no more remarkable combination of dramatic and rhetorical foreshadowing in a modern public address than the opening lines of Martin Luther King’s keynote address at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (video above and text here).
The speech is often presented without his introductory sentence, which is unfortunate since it is an essential element of his message. King began, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” This opening line foreshadows that the intellectual focus of the speech will be “freedom,” a word that, with its partner “free,” King repeats twenty-four times in his 1500-word oration. As we will soon see, it also anticipates his optimistic message.
King uses the word “history” twice in this simple prefatory line, foreshadowing that he will be taking a historical perspective, which he does from the start.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand 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 captivity.
Echoing Lincoln’s famous formulation, “fourscore and seven years ago,” in the literal shadow of the Lincoln monument, King here combines the verbal with the visual to turn Lincoln’s two great 1863 acts of communication-the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg address-into a symbolic foreshadowing of his own remarks 100 years later. In doubling this historical connection, he underscores what will be his main theme: Emancipation has not yet been realized:
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
We hear again King’s favorite rhetorical device in this speech, anaphora, in the repetition of “one hundred years later” to help him refine the central idea that “the Negro is still not free.” King’s speech makes the words “Emancipation Proclamation” cruelly ironic: The Negro was proclaimed free, but still is not.
The body of the speech lays out King’s nonviolent approach to fulfilling the “quest for freedom” and restates again and again both his dream and his demand for freedom. He says that “in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream “¦ a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” An essential goal of the speech is to instill hope, optimism, and faith in the listeners that the dream of freedom will be achieved, to urge with a powerful metaphor that they “not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He describes his stirring dreams, which are themselves ominatio, foretelling a future without racism, a future of freedom for all. He builds to the climax using the phrase “Let freedom ring” a dozen times and ends with the final repetitions of the key word as he says we can “speed up that day when all of God’s children “¦ will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ “
Now we see what was powerfully foreshadowed in the opening line: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” He is foreshadowing-prophesying-the success of this demonstration and the realization of his dreams. Through the figure of ominatio King did “show & foretell what shall hereafter come to pass “¦ in good things to stir up expectation and hope.”
That King would be a master of rhetoric and foreshadowing is not unexpected since he was, after all, a Reverend, a preacher, a student of the Bible. Foreshadowing and ominatio are the foundation upon which the Bible’s scaffolding of rhetoric was built-and the power of dreams to foretell the future is a Biblical truism. For Christians, the words in the Old Testament foreshadow the coming of the Messiah in the New Testament. The gospels are clearly written to echo the prophecies and promises and proverbs in the Old Testament. If you are a believer, that is because Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the words in the Old Testament. If you are not a believer, that is because the writers of the New Testament were trying to portray Jesus as the Messiah. Either way, by God’s design or man’s, the Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament again and again.
Jesus himself makes many prophecies that show and foretell what shall hereafter come to pass. He foretells events that happen very soon, such as when he tells Peter, “Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” He foretells events a long time off: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And he foretells events that have not yet come to pass-his return.
Foreshadowing and ominatio are key elements of poetic justice. Consider the story of Joseph. His brothers hated him because their father loved him the most, which the gift of the coat of many colors showed only too clearly. Joseph dreamt that he and his brothers were collecting stalks of grain, and when his own grain stalk stood up, those of his brothers bowed down before him. “Shalt thou indeed reign over us?” his brothers said. The text goes on, “And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.” Dreams are classic foreshadowing in the Bible as well as many other holy books.
One day, when Joseph’s brothers saw him in the field, “they said one to another, ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit “¦ and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ “ This is best labeled ironic foreshadowing, a favorite device also of Shakespeare’s and other great writers. The final line is intended as sarcasm, that the dreams will be dashed in death, but it soon becomes dramatic irony.
Instead of killing him, his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph ended up in the Egyptian prison, but using his power to interpret dreams, he not only won his freedom but soon became Pharaoh’s right hand man, after predicting that Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows meant there would be seven good harvests followed by seven years of famine, and thus, during the good years, Pharaoh would need to store up the grain. Every single thing Joseph said comes true. Then, during the famine, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt for grain so the family would not starve. Joseph thus gained power over his brothers, whom he put through various trials. But instead of seeking revenge, he saved his family from starvation.
This is poetic justice, that Joseph’s dreams of having power over his brothers came true precisely because they abandoned him, making their words dramatic irony that foreshadowed the end of the story. This is irony of fate.
The enduring power and poignancy of this story can be found in the words on a plaque at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination (with a slightly different translation than the King James): “Behold the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we will see what will become of his dream.”
King’s dream did survive him, and, some might argue, in the election of Barack Obama, witnessed its apotheosis, though not its completion.
Whereas the civil rights movement was trying to undo a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong, the challenge for climate science activists (the future generations rights movement?) is that we are trying to prevent a terrible multi-century-long moral wrong. That mission will require even more eloquence, even more commitment.
I have a dream of clean air and clean water for my daughter and all the children of the world. I have a dream of clean energy jobs for millions of Americans and tens of millions of people around the globe. I have a dream we saved this garden of Eden for generations to come, saved it from the greed and myopia of the few.
- How to be as persuasive as Abe Lincoln, Part 2: Use irony, the twist we can’t resist
- “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”: How to be as persuasive as Lincoln, 3
- How Lincoln framed his picture-perfect Gettysburg Address, 4: Extended metaphor