In key respects, King’s oratory bore resemblance to the poetic expressions of African American discontent seen in Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was not unlike most of King’s works in that it frankly acknowledged the pain of African American history while holding out hope for future fulfillment of the American Dream. McKay, too, expressed this kind of realism-optimism as he nostalgically reviewed love, nature, and faith and subtly reminded his readers of the promises of American democracy in such poems as “If We Must Die” and “America.”
Thus, King was not an isolated modern innovator or revolutionary in his orations, but rather a modern prophet with substantial linkage to the African American literary theme of struggling from internalized values to a better external world. King drew upon the African American cultural legacy as well as his training in mainstream Euro-American thought, the Social Gospel philosophy of Walter Rauschenbusch, and his own middle-class upbringing under the shadow of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
As literature, several of King’s speeches stand out as paradigmatic. The “I Have a Dream” speech has often been used in speech classes to demonstrate effective technique, and its content has been reviewed in countless books and articles. The metaphor of a “dream” to express the almost ineffable concept of a...
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