It’s exactly 50 years since civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, though his words live on. Chris Bond looks at what makes a great orator.
On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King gave an unscheduled speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to help drum up support for striking sanitation workers and was asked to speak because so many people wanted to hear what he had to say.
Dr King talked of “difficult days” ahead and finished his rousing speech by saying: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
The following day he was shot and killed as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis. His assassination sparked riots in more than a hundred US cities as a shocked nation, and the wider world, mourned the loss of the charismatic civil rights leader.
Dr King was one of history’s great orators. His crusade for equal rights for black people in America in the 1950s and 60s and his use of non-violent tactics struck a chord with many people, irrespective of race, creed or colour.
He possessed that rare ability, shared by all great orators, of not only being able to connect with an audience but to move them through his words. Perhaps the greatest example of this was in 1963 when he led a huge march on Washington DC and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Such speeches often take on greater resonance when those who delivered them, like Dr King and JFK, who at his inauguration in 1961 said: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, are cut down in their prime.
Great oratory has become synonymous with some of the most important figures of the last century such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, but its roots can be traced back to the days of the Greek and Roman empires when the likes of Demosthenes and Cicero held sway.
It’s worth noting, too, that some of the greatest speeches have been penned by playwrights, rather than politicians. None more so than William Shakespeare whose “band of brothers” speech for Henry V has become the stuff of legend.
Not that it’s all about lengthy sermons. At a mere 278 words, Abraham Lincoln’s fabled Gettysburg address, which he delivered in 1863 during the American Civil War, shows that one of the requirements of great oratory is brevity.
The best speeches work on a gut level rather than an intellectual one. Winston Churchill understood this as well as anyone and this, allied to his quick wit and sublime grasp of language, made him a formidable speaker.
His memorable wartime speeches, many of which were made when Britain stood alone against the Nazis, were meticulously prepared and conveyed with a clarity of purpose and defiance that he understood the nation wanted to hear.
It’s not by chance it was said of Britain’s great war leader that he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”
There are many people who look around at the world today and believe that great oratory is on the wane, lost amid a sea of soundbites and the spread of fake news.
Yet this was disproved by Barack Obama. He rose to become the first black president of the United States on the back of his soaring oratory and the infectious positivity of his “Yes we can” message.
Great oratory is not detached from society, it reflects it, along with the hopes and dreams of ordinary people.
As Bill Clinton, himself a skilled political communicator, once said: “You measure the impact of your words, not on the beauty or the emotion of the moment but on whether you change the way people not only think, but the way they feel.”