Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here”
|Topics:||Social Justice, Activism, Martin Luther King|
Table of Contents
The speech “Where do we go from here,” was delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. on 16 August, 1967 to an audience from the Members of the Fellowship of the Concerned, of the Southern Regional Council. This paper shall evaluate the speech, its meanings, and also evaluate Martin Luther King, Jr. as a speaker. The rhetorical elements of the speech shall also be assessed.
King’s speech was mostly addressed to the Members of the Fellowship of the Concerned, of the Southern Regional Council. The civil rights movement was the relevant event happening around this time when King delivered this speech and this movement mostly emanated from the South, with some activities also beginning in the North. The results of the Freedom Rides were significant for both the North and the South; in effect, practically the entire country was affected by the civil rights movement (Oppenheimer, 791). There were riots in different major cities in the US due to this movement with death tolls reaching 23 in Newark and 43 in Detroit. In the wake of these riots, King delivered his last presidential address during the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The Newspaper headlines at that time also showed controversies and criticisms caused by King’s remarks about the racism of Congress, about his outrage over the urban conditions of urban African-American neighborhoods, and his calls for mass civil disobedience.
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It is important to understand historically the audience listening to the speech before the speech can be understood by the audience in general. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 mostly as a means to coordinate the different protest groups in the South. This group was under the leadership of King, Jr. and it effectively secured power and influence from black churches in America. This organization was formed following the Montgomery bus boycott. When the boycott proved successful, the possibility of conducting more boycotts was also considered. The organization was conceptualized in order to coordinate these boycotts. Soon after, the SCLC was born. The ministers of the black churches set forth a manifesto where they asked white southerners to also realize that the treatment of the Negroes in America was unjust. This group was also founded on nonviolence. They did not advocate the use of violence and emphasized such even amidst the greatest provocation. SCLC participated in various local movements as well as coordinated mass protests in different parts of the South. SCLC also set out to address issues of economic disparities, and it believed that poverty was at the root of social inequality. By 1962, SCLC initiated a movement in order to secure new jobs for African-Americans. Thousands of people joined the protests coordinated by this organization and on King’s assassination in April 4, 1968, the momentum of the SCLC was compromised and the success of the protests was also undermined. At present, this organization has now become a nationwide organization with various chapters and affiliates in America. It has still stuck by its mandate of setting forth goals of political, social, economic, and political justice. It has also stayed firm in its non-use of violence as a means of protest.
The rhetorical situation in King’s speech was within standard in relation to planned speeches to groups. The speech was given as some aspect of the social movement he wanted to address was just coming to its end. In fact, the speech was given about eight months before he was assassinated. He spoke at the annual SCLC conference as the SCLC members were getting worried about the state of the civil rights movement and how King’s latest statements would impact on the movement (King, Jr., 44).
The social problem which King wanted to resolve was the unequal distribution of civil rights in America, with African-Americans not accorded the same rights handed to whites. He issues many influential speeches throughout the years and his words have always stood out (Washington, 33-43). King wanted to point out the importance of restructuring society and he asks questions which provoke a critical look into the capitalist economy. King presents questions like “who owns the oil” and “why do people have to pay water bills?” Clearly, King presents various evils which have become related to each other. “I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day, we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people here, and one day, we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth”.
In this speech, his focus was on the importance of the civil rights movement and of social and economic justice. In his speech, he explained how many blacks have suffered various injustices in America and how such injustices can actually be addressed by everyone, especially the government (King, Jr.). As the main leader and speaker which individuals recall in relation to the civil rights movement, it is but acceptable for him to defend and protect the poor black people of America. He was considered an authority in the civil rights movement and to date, no other leader has matched his passion for civil rights equality.
King is considered a popular, charismatic, eloquent, and profound speaker. Just as many people admired him, some others disliked him as well (Washington, 10-23). In the 1950s, his work with the civil rights movement would first start, ending in 1968 when he was assassinated. He was a Baptist pastor, as well as an executive with the NAACP, and as his movement would take off, he would be considered the first leader of the African-American non-violent demonstration (Oppenheimer, 791). He was also considered very much credible due to his academic prowess as well as his religiosity. The ethos of a speaker would very much rely on the audience and for some, his ethos was not considered high. However, in looking into him and his speeches deeply, his ethos is high. He was trustworthy to his audience and the audience identified significantly with him (Washington, 1-13). He also had a good reputation and was very much passionate about what he was doing and what he was fighting for.
The goal of this speech, like other speeches is to persuade. King was specifically trying to persuade his audience to not waver in the fight for their civil rights. He asked them to challenge the institutions which standardized such unequal distribution of civil rights (Washington, 11-23). Most of his listeners listened and liked him because this was an organization he organized and most of the members were oppressed African-Americans who looked to him for answers and possibly for their liberty from oppression. King set out to convince his audience that it is right for them to question the establishments and to fight for their civil rights (King, Jr., 45-50). His goal during his speech was therefore to reassure the audience that what they were fighting for was right and just and that it is right for them to question the institutions which oppressed the people (King, Jr., 43-50).
The members of the SCLC were the primary audience for the speech. This organization is made up mostly of African-Americans, black ministers, community leaders, and other citizens who were supportive of the civil rights movement started by King. The audience also included white politicians, civil rights movements groups, and activist groups who believed and supported King. Most of them supported and liked King because they believed in his advocacy. They were there because it was their annual meeting and King was already scheduled to speak. King set out to further strengthen their resolve and their support for the civil rights movement in America. (Oppenheimer, 791). The organization acknowledged the value of equality for all and the steps which had to be taken in order to secure such equality. The members were also agents of change as their actions had a significant impact on how the rest of society would react.
The rhetorical problems which King encountered were very much significant within the context of the speech. The audience and situation was within control so there were no expectations of any drastic words or reactions. A rhetorical issue which King was faced with during his speech was the passionate reaction of the people from his speech, a passion which may translate to violence. King and his people were aware “when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated” (King, Jr., 45). The members of the SCLC were motivated based on their belief in equal rights within society. Their support for the civil rights movement was also very much apparent and they agreed wholeheartedly with King and his cause. There was a possibility that their passion might translate to violent actions. King was there to explain and interpret the civil rights movement and the cause they were fighting for.
King was charming and mesmerizing during his speech. He started his speech by greeting the SCLC members and all his fellow African-Americans all over America (Washington, 791). He went on to recap the events which happened in the course of the civil rights movement. He also expressed how slowly, advances in the civil rights movement were being slowly gained. This is a good tactic as he emotionally appeals to his audience through pathos, expressing his appreciation to the audience for their efforts amidst the gains they were all able to secure. He also mentions the great efforts made by the Negroes to rise above the barriers of society (Washington, 791). Through pathos, he is also warming up the audience by establishing good rapport with them. King also applies logos well. His speech covers politics, the daily struggles of the Negro, and the barriers they face every day. In this context, he is defining the different concepts surrounding the civil rights movement and highlight how success was gained in the process. In relation to where they all want to go in the wake of these gains, he is firm in emphasizing that they should not relent and they should still persist. King also admits that there are ways and tools which have to be followed and he avers that the movement does not want to defy the law or evade it, but there may come a point where they may have to break some laws (King, Jr., 46). King is also claiming that while the civil rights movement may go through barriers, they are going through these barriers, including the capitalist barriers which would eventually help the regular, the poor Negro. After presenting these points, King also considers the burdens of the civil rights movement, the organizing, the building, and the numerous tasks which they have yet to do to secure their goals. His speech was formal in tone and very much informative. He is trying to encourage and praise his audience and he is using logic to convince them that it is right for them to soldier on. The audience was feeling anxious before the speech and somewhat apprehensive about the movement, but King used the right words to turn their minds. King tended to use repetition in order to emphasize his points and he uses popular words, even words from every day usage to great effect. He used the phrase, “where do we go from here” and used it repeatedly in order to bring greater focus to the importance of keeping true to the goals of the civil rights movement.
The speech of King had some effect, mostly to help the members of the SCLC be stronger in their beliefs in the goals of the civil rights movement (Washington, 791). King, Jr, spoke with great truth in his speech as he reached the audience on a deep and remarkable note in relation to the civil rights movement. He also helped the audience appreciate what they were actually fighting for and how they were likely to secure their goals. Same with the other speeches of King, he was also very much ethical (Washington, 791). He did not force the members to believe that what he was saying was true, but he used logic to help them ultimately understand the truth of what he was saying. He was honest and eloquent in how he presented his ideas and how he presented the achievements and the barriers faced by the civil rights movement (Washington, 791). It was up to the audience to later decide about what to do with the information given to them. He was also there to answer the questions and issues the SCLC about his previous statements in the course of the civil rights movement. King, Jr. also demonstrated artistry in the way he spoke. He did not use words which the audience would find difficult to understand. He used simple yet intriguing words to keep the audience’s interest (Washington, 791). The information he presented was very much important to the audience and it was the very reason he was there to speak before them. In general, the speech was well-delivered and it was very powerful especially in light of the audience being part of the civil rights movement in America at that time. The speech also shows the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr., in terms of how he can capture and captivate the attention of his audience.
- King, Jr. Martin Luther, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC
- Convention Atlanta, Ga. Web.
- Oppenheimer, David Benjamin. “Martin Luther King, Walker v. City of Birmingham, and the
- Letter from Birmingham Jail.” UC Davis L. Rev. 26 (1992): 791.
- Washington, James M. “The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.” New
- York: HarperOne (1986).
Offered for reference purposes only.