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 community at harmony with itself and the world has had an impressive impact even upon the organizational identity of the movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under King’s successors found the idea of keeping the “dream” alive to be its most effective theme for maintaining some continuity with the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. Other nonviolence oriented organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have also found this imagery and other King rhetorical symbolism useful to their efforts. The reason seems to be that King clearly articulated both the needs and hopes of African Americans.
There is clearly an institutional as well as a historical orientation in King’s speeches that is consistent with African American literary tradition. The black church, the family, hard work, and the variegated network...
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- Critical Essays