20 April 2009

Obama’s rhetoric identifies with Martin Luther King but appeals to a wider audience

The oratory of Martin Luther King was clearly derived from the style of preaching he had grown up with in the Southern Baptist Church. That same tradition was also reflected in the way crowds responded to his speeches like congregations, punctuating them at regular intervals with chants like “Holy, holy, holy”, “Amen”, etc.

This was very evident in the last speech he ever made on the night before he was assassinated (see transcript and video below):

MLK: I just want to do God’s will.
CROWD: Yeah-
MLK: And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.
CROWD: Go ahead-
MLK: And I’ve looked over,
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: and I’ve seen the promised land.
CROWD: Holy, Holy, Holy.
CROWD: Amen.
MLK: I may not get there with you.
CROWD: Yeah – holy.
MLK: but I want you to know tonight
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: that we as a people
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: will get to the promised land.
CROWD: Yeah [APPLAUSE] Holy, holy.
MLK: So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord [CHEERS + APPLAUSE].


Moving though his use of biblical imagery and references to ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ may have been, a question that never occurred to me when I first wrote about Martin Luther King’s oratory twenty five years ago (Our Masters’ Voices pp. 105-111) was how such language must have sounded to American Muslims, Jews, Hindus and non-believers, all of whom who were explicity included in the nation’s ‘patchwork heritage’ referred to in President Obama’s inaugural address.

Nor was his inaugural speech the first time that Obama’s rhetoric had broadened and extended his appeal to a much wider constituency than King’s fellow Southern Baptists and/or committed Christians. The following sequence from his victory speech in Chicago last November (for detailed analysis of rhetoric, see HERE) included clearly recognisable echoes with its mountain-climbing imagery and the claim that “we as a people will get there”:

OBAMA: The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

CROWD: Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can …


“We as a people will get there” may have sounded a good deal less dramatic than “We as a people will get to the promised land”, but it has the great benefit of being much more inclusive than was implied by the religious connotations of "the promised land" - while at the same time clearly identifying Mr Obama with well-known words of the person whose dream he was implicitly claiming to have fulfilled by winning the election.

The crowd also responded with a ‘secularised’ version of the kind of chanting that brought such life to Martin Luther King’s speeches, replacing words like 'holy' and 'amen' with repetitive refrain of the non-religious “Yes we can”, but still echoing or harking back to the close speaker-audience interaction of the Southern-Baptist tradition of worship.

As an outside observer of Barack Obama’s oratory and rhetoric, I have been fascinated by the way he managed, by stripping out religion from well-known words of Martin Luther King, to broaden his appeal to a much wider audience, while leaving the identification with his distinguished African-American predecessor clearly on view.

The questions I’d be fascinated to hear answered by him and his team of insiders is whether this was a deliberately contrived strategy and, if so, whose idea was it and when it was first conceived?

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