Political Writing: Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK Jr. DayIt seems appropriate on this day to comment on the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I think about my gold standard for political writing, the writings of this man are what come to mind. Recall, if you will, in my earlier posts about the best political writing; I mentioned how truly great political writing talks about America in a global sense and in terms that inspire, often at the same time as they challenge.

Hopefully, everyone today will get to hear Reverend King’s “I have a dream” speech at least once today. And while it’s easy to let the words fly by if you’re not really paying attention or busy doing something else, or view it in a blase manner as just another day without mail, I urge you to take a moment and either listen once more to the speech, or to read the transcript. You can do either at the website American Rhetoric. But talk about inspiring and challenging – read these words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

Today’s speechwriters and politicians would be well served to study this speech, and deconstruct it for the writing lessons it provides. Its inspiration does not flow from some magical source. Reverend King used repetition to great effect, but not just repetition; he subtly wove in allusions and quotations from the founding fathers and The Bible. He interspersed these historical contexts with current day examples. He used metaphor and analogy and alliteration, all in a way that complemented the words he spoke from the heart. Truly, his writing will live forever.

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