It has been maintained that Martin Luther King Jr. was the last American orator to use the grand level of style appropriately. In my rhetoric text Fitting Words, I define the grand level as that “in which the stylistic devices are intended to be dramatic, apparent, and impressive. Its purpose is not only to inform the mind and persuade the will, but to grip the emotions and heart. It is most appropriate for speeches delivered on formal occasions.”
Anyone who has listened to (or at least read) some of his speeches – especially his most famous “I Have a Dream” – is aware that MLK uses stylistic devices in a dramatic and impressive way, a way that can grip the mind and heart of his hearers. Here are some quotes from my text which shows his skill in using the grand level of style.
Perhaps no modern orator mastered rhythm as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Consider the rhythm of these sentences, taken from his powerful speech “I Have a Dream”:
In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.
And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of 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.
These beautifully framed words are memorable not only for what they say, but for how they were said. Listen for the rhythm by reading them aloud or, better yet, find a recording of Dr. King’s original delivery of the speech. (Fitting Words, page 279)
A study of the most powerful speeches will reveal that many of them end with a longer, highly-coordinated sentence, a sentence that climaxes in a short, powerful word. A few examples…
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’ (Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream.”)
(Fitting Words, page 281f)
Much more could be said. We could identify dozens of figures of speech which he uses masterfully, even including a subtle use of rhyme. The orations of Martin Luther King Jr. are well worth studying by the student of formal rhetoric.