The Persuasive Appeal of Dr. Martin Luther King


I really like Martin Luther King day as a holiday. It certainly makes more sense to me than President's Day. Washington and Lincoln were tremendous figures in our history, worthy of study and reflection -- but the world that they were part of seems very distant from the times we live in. But Dr. King, he was a man who dealt with problems we face and the forces that must be confronted to change them.

Organizational challenges. The staggering inertia of both the Government and the People. The omnipresent temptation to acts of violence.

I believe that violence in always backfires. It either hurts the cause or the person who perpetrates it or both. And I believe that a politics that appeals to one group or faction can seem powerful in the moment, but will prove to be catastrophic. And often sooner than one thinks.

This bodes not well for us at the moment, because all our politics currently seems to be predicated on identity and personality. I find that vile and stupid on all sides. But the key problem with identity politics is that it splinters into fragments. It's impossible to unify. Which makes it impossible to, well, lead.

When faced with a problem, I first, ask myself: what solutions have worked in the past? And will they work again? I don't think there's a single person who think that things are great right now. Or that one way or another, we don't face turbulent times and colossal change. But how do we actually go about changing things and not make them worse?

The last, biggest positive change I can think of was the Civil Rights Movement. And that was non-violent. And it inspired basically everyone.

There are many people who think that anybody who voted for Trump is an irredeemable racist. The problem with that thought is there are 70 million people who voted for Trump. And if you can't reason or negotiate or come to terms with them -- if argument is no use and they're just demons -- then the only thing left is violence. By no means is this kind rhetoric limited to one party or faction. But every time I hear someone espousing this brand of 'the other side is horrible and can't be reasoned with' rhetoric' it bothers me.

Because in it violence is implicit. And it always makes me wonder, is the person doing the yapping, going to get out there and fight themselves, or do they expect that someone else is going to take the hits for them?

And even if you think it acceptable to use violence in the pursuit of your ends, political and otherwise, I just can't see how it could be a way out of our difficulties.

And that's one of the things that is powerful about the "I Have A Dream" speech. Its fundamental rhetorical appeal is for people to answer the call of their own moral greatness. To recognize that we are, that we can, all of us, better than we give our selves credit for. And it works. Given the events of the summer and the recent events in the capitol, the speech shines brighter than ever for me this year. And seems all the more remarkable.

The commentary I wrote on it 2006 is still among the finest things I've ever written. And before I share it again, I have but one observation to add:

When you're serious about changing things you show up in a suit.

Martin Luther King wore a suit. Malcom X wore a suit. The men who sat in at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, wore suits. And maybe my point here isn't the clothes or the cause, but the attitude. When you really set out to create change in the world, it's serious. It's beyond rage. It's patient.

Recently, we have seen a lot of angry people with a lot of opinions. But what I haven't seen is organized and patient group of people working towards a unified goal. What I see, at worst, are sideshows in a vandalism carnival. Poor deluded people, hurting themselves and others, throwing their lives away for causes that they believe in, but that do not believe in them in return. And, in the end, all of them having very little to no effect at all.

What I see, at best, is protest without a plan. And protest with out a plan is performance art.

Dr. King didn't engage in performance art. He didn't bring a sword to divide people. And he appealed to the best in the enemies of his cause. And, I think, many of them were surprised to find the best in themselves answering, perhaps not entirely with their consent. But it worked.

Oh not perfectly. But it worked. And in this moment when things don't seem to be working very well at. Man, this speech. This approach to persuasion and change. It gives me hope. It makes me proud to be an American. A feeling that I find in dwindling supply.

Because I too, refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

MLK speech commentary

"I am happy to John with you today in what will go down in history. As the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

This is a speech I thought I knew by a man I thought I knew. If the beginning is not familiar, then surely this line and will make it clear.

I have a dream that one day...

Dr. Martin Luther King, civic Saint of the civil rights movement, tragically murdered, and now remembered with a federal holiday that is in many people's mind, nothing more than another day off. In mine too, I suppose. But the other day, an interesting thing happened. Set to random, my MP3 player singled out this historic speech for my listening pleasure.

Dr. King was the farthest thing from my mind. I was trying to beat a deadline, drowning out background noise with pop music. I almost skipped past it, but as I was about to press the fast forward button, my hand froze and it was this line that did it,

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

It's easy, looking back from the great height of 2006 to say, of course his cause was just, but in 1963, amid, the heat of a nation in turmoil, was it so obvious to everyone? Listening to this speech with fresh ears I was astonished not at the rhetoric, which is excellent. Now I was astonished by the fundamental nature of Dr. King's appeal. He's standing with an army in the middle of our nation's capital. It's crowded, it's hot and people are angry because they have a legitimate grievance, How easy it would have been to tap into that anger.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community.

But his persuasive appeal is not anger. It is faith, a patriotic faith in this country, which I'm not sure I have. The strength of his appeal is that he cries out to what is best in each of us. He's not really asking us to change. Not fundamentally. He's asking us to live up to what is best and we respond.

As proof I submit that only once during the entire speech, is he drowned out by the crowd,

Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And what is the Dream of the I have a dream speech? Everyone has their own view of utopia and the word dream in this speech encapsulates many visions. But when Dr. King first defined the dream in this speech, he did so in a way that surprised me.

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream. That one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

For me, this line is the heart of the whole speech. He's counting on us to make good on a check written by our forefathers. Not by force of arms, does he expect overcome, but by the inherent goodness in the hearts of men. Simply put, he expects people to do what is right. All of the social reformers I've heard in my lifetime have based their appeal on anger.

But to me, this speech is so different it might well have come from another planet. If Dr. King's appeal works, and clearly it did, It is because we are a good deal better than we usually give ourselves credit for. So on January 16th, I will not choose to remember a martyr. I will be thinking about a man, and a speech, which showed me that it is possible to change the world, not through fear or anger, but by appealing to what is best in all of us.

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!