Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Power of Great Rhetoric, Part 1

Words, especially powerful, moving words, tend to live on past the writer or orator that first coined them. Keith Grant-Davie, author of “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents,” writes that “major sources of exigence, like civil rights, can continue to motivate generations of rhetors” (274). When a great rhetorician comes around and finds his or her cause, a discourse is created that can envelope a nation well past that rhetor’s lifespan. Take, for example, Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. His words live on well past his writings and speeches and can be found to have an influence over the racial climate of current society, 45 years after his death. People who lived during or after Dr. King are familiar with his rhetoric, from his utterings of “I have a dream,” during a 1963 rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote, “There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” Dr. King demonstrates his ability as a rhetorician in his “Integrated Bus Suggestions” flyer, released during a time of civil unrest after one of his early victories in ending segregation.

In his article, Grant-Davie describes exigence as more than just the event that prompts the rhetorical situation and asks readers to think of exigence as a set of questions like, “What fundamental issues are represented by the topic of the discourse?” or “What values are at stake” (267)? Dr. King is well aware of the exigence prompting him to react with his “Integrated Bus Suggestions” flyer. The American south was separated by segregation or the concept of separate but equal facilities for whites and black citizens of the same country, which were inherently unequal and favored white people well over black people. Dr. King, in his flyer, recognizes that a large step had been taken away from this situation and stated that “this [was] a historic” event “because segregation on buses [had] been declared unconstitutional” (1). Dr. King recognizes that the climate in America was shifting in his favor, and that he had to take advantage of the situation to create a discourse that would appeal to a nation.

Grant-Davie also introduces the concept of “Kairos” within the discussion of exigence, and states that it is “the right or opportune time to speak or write” (268). Dr. King, prompted by the end of segregated buses and facing a southern climate where white leaders wouldn’t stand up and help the white community react to this change, found himself with the opportunity not only to address a black audience on how to accept this victory, but to the white community to help them accept this change and work as a united people towards a more integrated society. Dr. King knew the time was ripe, and the opportunity to make such declarations had an expiration date, such as after a response to integration in the form of a violent outburst, and made sure to appeal to everyone reading his letter to maintain in the face of “unpleasantness, a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens,” and stated that “if there [was] violence in word or deed it must not be our people who commit it” (1). Dr. King took on the role of advisor and directed his audience to take the path of nonviolence in the face of a changing nation.

Rhetors, like Dr. King, take on multiple roles when they create a discourse. Grant-Davie notes that “rhetors need to consider who they are in a particular situation and be aware of that their identity may vary from situation to situation” (269). Dr. King, when his career started, was a minister that preached to a congregation in the south. His role in the church evolved into being the man at the forefront of the nonviolent civil rights movement in America. Dr. King was aware of this evolution and made use of his multiple roles as a minister, civil rights leader, black man, American citizen, and member of the human race in all of his discourse.

Dr. King used his knowledge of his roles to accomplish his, as Grant-Davie would put it, “primary and secondary objectives, some of which might not be stated in the discourse” (269). His primary reason for creating the “Integrated Bus Suggestions” flyer was to make the transition from segregated buses to integrated buses easier for the bus-goers and to ensure that these passengers used nonviolence to respond to any people opposing the change. Dr. King told his readers that the flyer was “for your help…you will read, study, and memorize…so that our non-violent determination may not be endangered” (1). But, Dr. King was aware that his discourse was being watched by the nation and that, whatever the outcome may be, the integrated buses were an experiment on how integration would take place within the nation. Dr. King’s secondary objection, as a preacher, a black man, and head of the nation’s civil rights movement, was to lead his followers across the nation to “not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change” across the United States using peaceful resistance and not to strike out in violent response if violence was used upon him or his followers (2).

Check out Part 2!
– Amanda Riggle


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