Speeches and Civil Rights: A Broader Lens Part 1

the civil rights movementSpeeches are inherently epic. They are not quite story, nor vision, nor lecture, but a combination of all three, mixed with a healthy dose of theatricality and boundless passion. If you need proof, look no further than Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. The iconic speech is a highlight of the Civil Rights Movement; the audio is still used as a tentpole for civil rights education today.

But did you know that the speech wasn’t entirely written by the civil rights leader? In fact, the first draft was almost entirely written by two of MLK’s frequent speech writers, Stanley David Levison and Clarence B. Jones.

While this information might be shocking, it is actually a very common and accepted practice for a speech to be written with very little influence from the person delivering it — at least in the earliest stages.

In this two-part series, we will explore the topic of speeches and speechwriting. This first installment will look at what goes into crafting a good speech and later, we will delve into the best African American speech writers, past and present.

Part 1: What Makes a Good Speech?

  1. Structure
    Human beings are pattern seekers. We like to make sense of the whole to have an idea of what is coming next. If a speech doesn’t have the structure to provide this comfort, the structure to lead the listeners to arrive at the same destination, then it will not be successful.
  2. Rhythm
    Rhythm is an important part of any speech. It is, after all, meant to be heard, meant to be listened to. The same rhythms that Shakespeare used in his poetry can make a speech transcend a lecture, creating an experience and fostering a community.
  3. Repetition
    Repetition can help solidify ideas in the minds of the audience. This way, a listening audience can take away the most important parts of the speech. But repetition can be used to harken back to other great speeches or literary works. MLK harkens back to the Bible in his speech, and to the speeches of his contemporaries, giving his audience context and his words gravitas.
  4. Humanity
    One thing that is often overlooked by amateur speechwriters is making a human, emotional appeal to their base. People, in general, don’t like facts — especially ones that don’t align with their own biases. You can talk about the statistics, the fact that in 2015 the average black family was 13 times poorer than a white family, but those numbers will fall on deaf ears. But a father talking about his dream for his four children can touch the hearts of even those with closed minds. It is something that every parent experiences, it is relatable and it is human. There is a reason why the speech is titled I Have a Dream. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew that he needed to make a personal connection if he wanted to reach a broader audience

Then, as in now, it takes a lot of skill to become a speech writer. The second part of this series will highlight the very best African American speechwriters of the Civil Rights Movement and today.

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