King is widely regarded as one of the best public speakers of all time. Cary, who’s also a senior fellow at the UVA Miller Center of Public Affairs, said the motivational nature of King’s speeches, akin to the famous Greek orator Demosthenes, is what sets him apart.
“Martin Luther King gets people to say, ‘Let us march,’” Cary said. “That’s different than listening to a speech and saying, ‘Wow, that was a pretty good speaker. They delivered that well.’ Well, that’s not the point. The point is to motivate people to get off the couch and either donate their money or volunteer their time or buy your product or vote for your candidate. That’s the point of a great speech.
“With Martin Luther King, his prior background as a Baptist minister and a preacher really fed into his cadence, his speaking style, his ability to deliver a speech off the cuff without notes, his biblical references that he could then build upon.
“A lot of his prior experience is what made him a great speaker, but also made him a unique voice in American history – one that no one else has ever been able to replicate.”
Ahead of MLK Day, Cary broke down for UVA Today four speeches involving King.
“I Have a Dream”
Ranked as the best American speech of the 20th century by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University, King put an exclamation point on the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with a passionate plea for racial harmony delivered at the Lincoln Memorial.
Though the speech’s most enduring phrase is used eight times, it wasn’t part of King’s script.
“The fun backstory, which very few people know, is Martin Luther King had been using this metaphor of ‘I have a dream’ in a number of speeches prior to this,” Cary said. “So this was not new.
“He had this group of close advisers that met the night before the March on Washington and they were going back and forth on what he should say. And King suggested, ‘I have a dream.’ And the advisers were like, ‘Oh, no, you used that a million times. Let’s do something different.’
“So the ‘I have a dream’ litany got voted down.”
King, of course, ad-libbed when prompted on stage by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who told him, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”
“That happens a lot,” Cary said. “The speechwriter says one thing and the boss does another. Usually the boss is right.”
“Our God Is Marching On”
March 25, 1965 marked the end of the King-led walk in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery, where he addressed those who took the five-day, 54-mile journey with him in support of voting rights for African Americans.
A crowd of 25,000 watched as King quoted from poems, the Bible and songs. He used a call-and-response technique with the audience – “How long? Not long!” – before ending with lyrics from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“A recurring theme as King goes from 1965 to his death in 1968 is the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and the idea of causing people to march,” Cary said. “That strategy goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Demosthenes.”
An Athens statesman, Demosthenes famously motivated his fellow citizens in their fight for independence against King Philip II of Macedon. When Cary presents to her class the best examples of march-provoking speeches, she uses King’s speech from Montgomery and President George W. Bush’s address from the National Cathedral following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That, too, concludes with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (President George W. Bush) got the idea from Martin Luther King,” Cary said.