Introduction and Profile
Atlanta, Georgia, commonly known as the “gateway to the South,” is where Martin Luther King Jr., like millions of African-Americans learnt the hardships of segregation and turmoil. King was born on the eve of the Great Depression, and though he might not have remembered much of it, the events that took place, as well as the treatment of his ‘brothers and sisters’ would go on to shape his entire life.
In his autobiography, King states to have always had a calling to serve society. Though he would follow his father and grandfather’s footsteps as a clergyman, King had originally anticipated to serve differently, as a lawyer or doctor. In some parts of the country, both professions were unheard aspirations for African-Americans, but his dexterity and unfettered ideals would prove fruitful for the young Georgian, and would go on to shape his entire life and those of millions.
Yet King was unsure for some time. In university, he started questioning his faith, “my studies had made me skeptical, and I could not see how many of the facts of science could be squared with religion” (King & Carson, 1999: 15). It wouldn’t be until his final year of undergraduate education that King would set his mind on becoming a minister and join the Crozer Seminary.
King would go on to waltz between academia and religion. In what he describes as his next stage of, “intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence,” (King & Carson, 1999: 30) he sought his doctoral degree from Boston University, yet another example – which this essay will delve into more thoroughly later – of his attempt to overcompensate and dilute the stereotype of African-Americans at the time.
In the spring of 1954, King and his wife, Coretta moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where the soon-to-be Doctor of Philosophy accepted the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which would soon mark the beginning of King’s activities as a civil rights leader.
One of such triggers occurred in 1955, when an African-American woman riding a public bus in Montgomery refused to yield her seat – at the obligation of the white driver – to a white man. Her name was Rosa Parks, and she would go on to be the first of many of King’s triggers to the national stage. That episode will remain the tipping point in not only King’s career and the Civil Rights Movement, but in American history as a whole.
So what rendered this moment more than but another example of unholy segregation? What led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to march in some of his country’s most racially divided and violent cities and demand equality? More pertinently, how was King able to change the minds of millions into not only following the path of nonviolence, but to bend straight the crooked minds of millions of white Americans who sought the belittlement and dehumanization of their fellow members of society? It will be this essay’s task to answer such questions through the analysis of King’s actions, using the trinity – proposed by O’Shaughnessy (2004) – of myth, symbolism and rhetoric.
In order to appreciate the cry for change which King was leading, one must take a few steps back and appreciate the legitimacy of his calling.
Through his time as an activist, King often referred to the mythology of the founding of the United States of America. Though at times more bluntly than others, King regularly used the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Movement. The declaration was written in 1776 at a time when American colonies were at war with the British Empire and sought to make themselves independent (Armitage, 2007). As well as vouch for the sovereignty of all thirteen colonies, the declaration held what is now recognised as one of the most respected prose in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The sentence would go on to be used, most famously, by Abraham Lincoln in one of American history’s most famed and respected speeches, the Gettysburg Address in 1863. He too, much like the declaration’s founders and as King would go on to do, used the history and mythology of the famed sentence to inspire peace between two parties, and to promote human rights and equality. For from its founding to modern day, America has waltzed to various degrees of racism and inequality, yet its worse was when slavery was still rampant in much of the South. Lincoln, a Republican, fought hard to abolish and end one of the most disturbing chapters in American history (Goodwin, 2005).
The sentence, and in fact the declaration in its entirety, fit perfectly in the mythology that is the American story and history. King and his advisors are therefore right to exploit it to their benefit as their cry is perfectly fitting with their country’s story. In fact the use of shared and fused mythology is attributable to King’s success as myths pour meaning into a cause (O’Shaughnessy, 2004). For as O’Shaughnessy (2004: 90) explains, “myths are intimately bound up with a society’s identity, its ability to transmit a coherent culture and moral code to cadet generations and to inspire pride and a sense of community.”
Beyond history, King, as a pastor and man of the cloth, often looked towards his faith and the Bible for mythological guidance. In one of hundreds of such examples – which he describes on the heels of Parks’s arrest and his subsequent election as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association – King was overtaken by anxiety and a feeling of inadequacy. In his autobiography, King explains that at that moment he looked to God for guidance as he’d done numerous other times:
With nothing left but faith in a power whose matchless strengths stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature, I turned to God in prayer. My words were brief and simple, asking God to restore my balance and to be with me in a time when I needed His guidance more than ever. (King & Carson, 1999: 58)
Retrospectively we can say that King not only used myths to his cause’s advantage by finding unifying truths and paths of moral righteousness, but in doing so also created new myths, which as we find today, inspire and bind millions together.
Symbolism: Building a symbol that would shake the world
There have been innumerable symbols throughout King’s time as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He not only used symbolism as a tool for uniting people together but was himself akin to looking towards symbols of victory like Mahatma Gandhi. King was known to symbolically marry Gandhi and Jesus Christ in many of his sermons. He was known to say, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” (King & Carson, 1999: 67). As a result, Gandhi became a well known figure and symbol of nonviolent resistance for King and many of the people of Montgomery.
But while the symbolism of Gandhi and his achievements echoed from King’s pulpit on Dexter Avenue, King was slowly becoming the symbol of nonviolence to the millions of African-Americans who had never heard of Gandhi – let alone India – and who too yearned for hope. King recognised that symbols, “attract public notice” and “speak directly to the heart and [do] not tax critical intellect” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004: 102).
However, before King became a symbol of hope and the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, 1955 knew an electrifying moment that would go on to inspire and generate one of King’s most successful campaign tactics.
Money, MS: The idea
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who’d been raised nearly single handedly by his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, originally from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. One summer, in 1955, Till went down to Money, Mississippi to visit his great-uncle, Mose Wright, a local preacher and his wife, Lillybeth. Till was the center of attention; he would fascinate his cousins and their friends with all kinds of anecdotes from a big city like Chicago, even sharing a picture of his bi-racial classroom and stating that he had white girlfriend (Whitaker, 2005).
One Sunday, while Wright was preaching to his congregation, Till and his cousins escaped and went to Money. Though the details are still widely disputed, Till allegedly started flirting with a white, 21-year-old married woman named Carolyn Bryant.
A few days later, Till’s body was found floating atop the Tallahatchie river, lifeless and deformed. At his mother’s instance, the body was brought back to Chicago where Mamie Till dressed the lifeless body of her son in a suit and tie and was determined to hold an open-casket funeral. A few hours later, the decomposed and disfigured photograph of Emmett Till was on the front page of dozens of newspapers in America.
Hundreds of miles away, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. watched as the picture fostered anger and animosity in the eyes of millions of all races and creeds, and noticed its transformation into a symbol of segregation. A few years later King went to Albany, Georgia, with the hopes of reproducing the same power and national outcry as Till’s picture had. He would fail. But he would learn.
Albany, GA: The failure
In December 1961, nearly a year into John F. Kennedy’s presidency, disappointment echoed in much of the South, including Albany, Georgia, a place of rabid segregation.
King called Albany a, “distillation of tensions and conflict straining the social fabric of the contemporary South” and knew that its segregationists, “thought granite stubbornness was a policy” which meant, “the throbbing pain of segregation could be felt but not seen” (King & Carbon, 1999: 152). King wanted it to be seen. Much like Till’s body, he knew there would never have been the same outcry if the young boy’s picture hadn’t been published, or even taken. King wanted to exploit that weighty divide and make the throbbing pain of segregation felt and seen.
King thought he had all the instruments he needed in Albany: a deeply segregated population with nonviolent and abashed victims; and an unholy bigoted white population. In King’s mind, adding peaceful protests to the mix would be the perfect trigger for an explosion (though unfortunately, sometimes not only metaphorically) and garner the world’s attention. Since the buses had become their symbol thanks to Parks and the Montgomery bus protest, King heralded hundreds of Freedom Riders to Georgia’s eighth largest city. His aim, inspired by Gandhi’s, was to overcrowd Albany’s prisons, and force the police to either allow the nonviolent protests or to adopt more radical measures of suppression. While most of the Riders, King included, would end up spending days in prison, King was never able to overflow them. He later understood the reason why: Laurie Pritchett, Albany’s Chief of Police.
It turned out King had miscalculated the pivotal role of law enforcement in his campaign. Pritchett was a shrewd man who had studied the teachings of Gandhi, and as a result was able to read through King’s playbook and predict his nearly every move (Sitton & Roberts, 2013). When Pritchett heard of King’s arrival, he wasted no time to ask neighboring counties if they would alleviate his cells if he ran out of space. Additionally, fearing King would be exuded as a symbol of martyrdom to rally more crowds, Pritchett released him from prison the morning of his second arrest (though he would state King had been bailed out by an anonymous man). His ability to control King and enforce relative peace in Albany would even lead many to praise him, including Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General.
King left Albany acknowledging defeat: “months of demonstrations and jailing failed to accomplish the goals of the movement” (King & Carson, 1999: 167). But though he left defeated, he didn’t leave broken. King and his advisors would end up going home and concoct what generations to come would remember as “Project C”.
Birmingham, AL: The symbol
When King and his colleagues left Albany in the spring of 1962, they were determined to learn from their failures. King wrote, we “must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew.” (King & Carson, 1999: 167) In the spring of that year they looked for new grounds where they could stage their campaign. This time, they not only looked for a deeply segregated and bigoted town, but also for a sheriff that openly mirrored those values.
Birmingham, Alabama and its Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor met all of their criteria. Therefore, in May of 1962, at a board meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, King and his advisors, “began to prepare a top secret file called ‘Project Confrontation’” (King & Carson, 1999: 174).
A few months before the campaign started, Connor proved the abrasive and brash nature of his character when he refused to concede defeat in Birmingham’s mayoral election. The result was a city which, “was operating literally under two governments.” (King & Carson, 1999: 177) King couldn’t have asked for better from a sheriff; and though it took some time, and nearly faced failure again, King was able to lead a campaign which gave birth to one of modern history’s most galvanizing symbols.
In the midst of planning Project C, King was faced with a moral dilemma. He unconsciously knew the power of martyrdom was mighty, but that it came with great costs. In Birmingham, King and his advisors wanted to use children to lead a march and stand in front of Connor and his troops. King believed that while many were able to suppress and silence their moral obligation to speak up against injustice towards adults, their rationality would not sustain the sight of injustice towards children. At least that’s what he was hoping.
King chose to follow that gamble. He and his advisors contacted local leaders and influencers, and asked them to rally as many children as they could.
Though it was initially titled D-Day, May 2nd 1963 would go on to be remembered as the “Children’s Crusade”. On that day, very few African-American children went to school, or even home that night. Over a thousand of them walked out of 16th Street Baptist Church and before they could go much further, the menacing force of Connor and his men arrested 956 people (Gladwell, 2014).
The next day, Double D-Day, would be King’s long-awaited masterpiece. With no more space in his jails, and having ignored Pritchett’s advice, Connor decided to take aggressive action. He called in his canine unit and ordered the Fire Department to blast their hoses at the children, whose clothes were being ripped off their skin, and whose bodies were being flung against buildings and roads creating an imagery reminiscent of slavery.
One could argue that King went so far as to stage every precise moment of that day. Protesters would be brought out of 16th Street Baptist Church, one group at a time, and sent towards a very small area niche enough where photographers, protesters and policemen would inevitably be forced to play their roles.
It’s fair to compare King’s D-Day plan with a staged performance. One could go so far as to stipulate that he himself hand picked all his characters and directed every scene: from the decision to coincide the flow of protesters with the city’s rush hour so as to create an illusion of mass in photographs. To selecting the most ruthless and self-centered police force who would go to all ends in order to uphold their bigoted agenda. To finally calling precise members of the press and directing their placement at specific times. King had asked photographers from LIFE magazine, which was read by over 60% of the American population at the time (Gladwell, 2014); journalists from the Associated Press who were known to redistribute their content to local newspapers across the country; and last but not least, national TV networks, including CBS, NBC, and ABC, which at the time had a combined reach of about 90% of American households (TVB, 2012).
The explosion King expected in Albany finally took place in Birmingham, and in retrospect, was largely due to luck. A young African-American man named Walter Gadsden, whose family were harsh critics of King’s efforts in Birmingham, was walking home when the protest took place on Double D-Day. While walking by, a police dog bit Gadsden’s waist just in front of Bill Hudson, a photographer for the Associated Press who instantly took a picture (Gladwell, 2014). That very picture was the electrifying moment King had been waiting for, for all these years.
The next morning, the picture ran above the fold, across 3 columns in the New York Times (1963). The following Monday, that very picture was the first topic of discussion on the floor of the United States Senate, and was described by President Kennedy as “sickening” (Younge, 2013).
A few months later, in June 1963, Kennedy announced a new civil rights proposal which would go on to be the now famous and iconic Civil Rights Act of 1964 (King & Carson, 1999). It was King’s first federal victory.
As Wyatt Walker, one of King’s advisors in Birmingham would later recall, “there was never a more skillful manipulation of the news media than there was in Birmingham.” (Walker in Younge, 2013)
The Power of Symbolism
It is beyond a reasonable doubt that King could not have achieved the heroism and catapulting change in human rights in the Deep South without the use of symbolism. In fact, the symbolism in Till’s 1955 picture is arguably what led change in Birmingham, as Gladwell (2014) explains, “half the people who came to Birmingham, were people who became emboldened in the Civil Rights Movement by that picture.” Likewise, that picture acted to invigorate federal change in the United States, and would go on to be used by King as he fought for justice in Selma, Alabama a few years later, which itself created the symbolism to fuel the next chapter of the Civil Rights Movement.
Though as O’Shaughnessy (2004: 102) argues, symbols are an, “immensely cheap form of propaganda” and while that must have been a main motivator for King, what this chapter has attempted to show is that while they may be cheap in some respect, they require a tremendous investment. As we’ve seen through this chapter, it took King nearly ten years to accomplish his symbolic masterpiece, and though his investment would bear fruition, it would be appropriate to question whether we could still call it a “cheap form of propaganda” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004: 102)
Additionally, if we follow Douglas’s (1982: 38) statement that, “symbols are the only means of communication” one should be wary and hope it to be false. For as the picture of Gladsden in Birmingham showed, the symbol was not a perfect representation of the current situation: the young man came from a family of staunch King opposers; he wasn’t taking part in the protest; he was grabbing the officer, a sign of violence, therefore not a trained member of King’s protesters; and the leach holding the German Shepherd was tight, proposing the officer was trying to hold back his dog. In this instance symbolism led justice to prevail, and we have every reason to be joyful for it, but if “symbols are the only means of communication” (Douglas, 1982: 38) doesn’t that put us at risk of exploiting and bending the truth?
Rhetoric: I Have a Dream
King was well known to invest just as heavily in rhetoric, if not more so than in symbolism. In fact, he would often marry the two together at every chance he got. One example of that is also the most important example of rhetoric in King’s career: It was on the 28th August 1963, on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the symbolic statue of President as his backdrop. King made a speech which would go on to be remembered as one of the greatest speeches in history. It would be called the ‘I have a dream’ speech and it would help introduce King both nationally, to many white Americans, as well as internationally. It would be the speech that would transform King into the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
On the morning of August 28th 1963, King was revising his speech in his hotel room, anxious as he often was (Younge, 2013). His was supposed to be the last in a series of speeches from other Civil Rights activists, who had come from across the country to address the hundreds of thousands of people who were expected to take part in the March on Washington. King, like any orator, knew of the mighty importance of relating to his audience, and his anxiety stemmed from his fear of speaking to a crowd too large to cater precisely to (King & Carson, 1999).
Yet when the time came, King stood on stage, and began his speech, which at this point was being televised. The mere recording of his speech echoes the voice of a tired orator, it was the end of a warm day, around 7pm, and both King and his audience were fatigued. There are some discrepancies about what led King to avert his mind from his prepared speech, some state he heard his friend Mahalia Jackson cry for him to, “tell them about the dream” (Younge, 2013: 5) others, King included, argue it just came out of thin air (King & Carson, 1999). Regardless of why, mid-way through his speech King decided to change course and in doing so made it one of the most famous pieces of rhetoric in history.
What originated as a speech quickly turned into a sermon. Clarence Jones, a close friend of King’s and one of his advisors on the speech, recalled his thoughts when it happened, “from the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher.” (Jones in Younge, 2013: 4) Arguably, the change in tone helped bring power to King’s speech. If one bears in mind that most Americans were devout Christians in the 1960s (Gallup, 2015), King’s pivot in tone allowed him to relate more easily with his audience. That change also led to a new cadence. Though King’s speech started with a low cadence, as soon as he adopted the tone of a preacher his words came out faster (paralinguistic), his fist and index pointed high at the sky (extralinguistic), his eyes faced the sea that was his audience, his voice thundered (prosodics) and his congregation awoke. In fact, according to O’Shaughnessy and O’Shaughnessy (2004: 149) such changes, “can be just as relevant to persuasion as the words themselves.”
King used his role and clout as a clergyman to make Biblical allusions throughout his speech. One in particular where he says, “no, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream,’” quotes a passage of the Bible where Amos relates his vision of Israel a few years before an earthquake (Younge, 2013). King’s allusion is just shy of stating that God would punish those who seek to counter justice.
What’s more, in trying to foster a level understanding for his white audience, King makes several other allusions to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, even bluntly on one occasion. In doing so, King is able to make his speech very relatable to both his white and African-American audience, for who would contradict a man who’s merely reciting documents which are dearly valued by both audiences? Cockcroft and Cockcroft (1992: 25) argue that in order to persuade an audience to action, the persuader must clearly identify with the receiver, as King has done and, “talk his language by speech, tonality, order, image, attitude and idea.” King would prove successful on both these fronts, as the New York Times (1956) would write,
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a Baptist preacher in great southern tradition of resounding, receptive rhetoric. And he can build on to his climax with a crescendo of impassioned pulpit pounding that overwhelms the listener with the depth of his convictions.
Moving forward, King juxtaposes metaphor and allusion atop each other. In the following part of his speech, King makes the allusion that “those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off some steam” will be faced with a “rude awakening.” Much like the Biblical allusion highlighted earlier, one can assume that King is alluding to his chief rival, Malcolm X, known to marry activism with force. Such an allusion is then juxtaposed with a pleading for non-violence, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” King is right to use metaphors, and does so successfully by aiming at both of his audiences, for metaphors influence listeners and “affect […] not only our intellectual but also our emotional response.” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004: 70)
Though Cockcroft and Cockcroft (1992: 45) would be inclined to argue that King’s use of rich diction was to “create a scene vividly for the audience, thus arousing their emotions” it would be difficult to defend that conclusion when faced with an audience unlikely to understand such language. Rather, one could argue that King’s use of rich diction was instead to overcompensate and prove wrong the stereotype of the illiterate African-American. In fact, in university King admits to the urge of constantly combating such typecasting, “I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with [these stereotypes].” Even going so far as to, “overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed” (King & Carson, 1999: 17) Even, as a young boy, King used to tell his mother, “You just wait and see. I’m going to get me some big words.” (Younge, 2013: 94)
King, unlike Winston Churchill, another great orator of the last century who would constantly simplify his speeches’ rhetoric to relate more easily with his constituents (Johnson, 2014), proved constantly needing to show his high level of diction. Such an urge proved true in his Dream speech with this example of many, “some have come here out of great trials and tribulations.” In this example, King’s use of register mixing (Fahnestock, 2011) proves his attempt to speak to (and flatter) the educated white American and prove his literacy and education, but also reaches towards the African-American to whom he explains his words (by using a synonym, “trials”) but also seeks to exude the image of the literate and able leader.
Most memorably, the technique which has led to much of King’s, as well as many others’, rhetoric success is the use of repetition, and more precisely, anaphora. Though there are several examples of this technique in his Dream speech, the one that resonated the most, and the one that gave the speech its power is,
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, 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.
With the use of anaphora King unlocks the power of emotional persuasion in his audience (Fahnestock, 2011). What’s more, the speaker goes further and juxtaposes metaphor (“the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”) to elaborate and emphasise his point (Fahnestock, 2011); allusion (“I have a dream”) alluding to the famed American dream to foster a sense of opportunism and relevance; and imagery (“little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls”) as a critical tool to persuade (O’Shaughnessy, 2004). The juxtaposition of all these rhetorical technique amplify King’s speech and with it propelled King and the Movement to the center stage.
On the eve of his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his final speech. A speech where he candidly foreshadowed his own death and where he spoke of having seen the mountain top, having seen the promised land, and that though he might not reach that point in history, he told those gathered with him that he knows it will come.
Two score years after the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, one wonders if we have reached that promised land. It seems as though every new day brings with it another story of excessive police force against African-Americans. One would be wrong to believe that history has not changed, that the black man is still segregated, that the black man is not allowed to drink from the same fountain, ride on the same bus, vote in the same country, as a white man. We’ve gone far from such shallow times, and we owe a great debt to Dr. King for his selflessness, for his vision, and for his labour.
Through this essay, one hopes to have understood the brilliance and learned techniques which King put in place, through the use of mythology, symbolism, and rhetoric, a trinity which is clearly fitting with King’s strategies.
Though we might not have reached the promised land, King has fundamentally transported us far nearer than one could ever have imagined five score years ago.
This essay was written for Social and Political Marketing, a module for my masters in marketing. It was awarded a first-class distinction.
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