Martin Luther King, Jr. Receives Too Much Attention as an Orator


Martin Luther King, Jr. was a gifted orator with extraordinary charisma (Miller). But he was not the only voice for human rights during the Civil Rights Movement nor is he the only voice that needs to be heard now. If he worked collaboratively with speech writers, as he did with Vincent Harding for “Beyond Vietnam” (Fox), then other voices from the Civil Rights Movement should also be heard. King’s prominence overshadows other orators, and the attention we give his speeches, while deserved, also silences the voices of these other speakers. Because King is about the only African American orator mentioned in history or English classes (usually in comparison to the shocking Malcolm X (though we can say that this view will change as more of Malcolm’s primary sources are studied (Miller “My Final…”), we risk losing a significant portion of collective memory, culture, and actual history. We risk skewing our historical memory by focusing on one African American who spoke for human rights when there were many other orators who spoke effectively to both white and black audiences. According to Brooks, Harry Belafonte “contends that in Hamer’s voice [Belafonte] ‘could hear the struggle of all black America’” (Brooks 3). Unlike King, Hamer had little education, but the distance King placed between himself and undereducated speakers is clear and silences the voices of those with less education. This carries forward to those who listen to or read his speeches today for audiences hear the disdain for nonstandard English. In his “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March”, King twice states that speakers had “ungrammatical profundity” (King 119) and “ungrammatical form” (King 128). In doing so, King acknowledges the value of the the speakers’ statements, but he undercuts their societal worth by pointing out their nonstandard English dialects. King was a great African American orator, but he should not be singled out. Instead, as Hamer frequently mentioned, there is a “kind of education that not only black folks should be aware of, but whites as well” (Hamer 186). A revised education that includes contributions to American society from all races, not just whites and a few memorable figures of other races, would benefit all of American society, potentially changing the conditioning we have all received (Hamer 186) as a result of a white patriarchal society.

Works Cited

Fox, Margalit. “Vincent Harding, 82, Civil Rights Author and Associate of Dr. King, Dies.” The New York Times, 21 May 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/us/vincent-harding-civil-rights-author-and-associate-of-dr-king-dies-at-82.html?_r=0.

Hamer, Fannie Lou. “We Haven’t Arrived Yet.” The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is, edited by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, [UP of Mississippi, 2013], pp. 182 - 193.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Edited by Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard, IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001, pp. 119 - 132.

Miller, Keith D. “My Final Comments on Malcolm X.” ENG 551: African American Rhetoric Week 6 Class Lecture, Arizona State University, October 2016.

—-. Personal Interview. 16 September 2016.

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