Martin Luther King Jr. is a prominent name that stands for the ending of racism, discrimination, and segregation of African Americans in the United States. On April 3, 1968, he spoke passionately about his support for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in the speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King proves his stance through the use of rhetorical devices such as a looming rhetorical question, a compelling metaphor, and an appeal to pathos. The author’s purpose is to encourage African Americans of this segregated country to persevere in order to seek absolute freedom and be proud of their heritage. He establishes a hopeful, bittersweet, yet aggressive tone with his audience of desperate African Americans and Civil Rights Activists.
King initializes his presence in the Mason Temple by posing several rhetorical questions to persuade the audience on the topic of racial segregation, he asks these questions not for an answer, however, for an intended affect. The first rhetorical question comes from the Almighty God who asks, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” This initial question allows the audience to ponder what the world has become. King follows this question with some of the most monumental times in history such as the Renaissance, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt and proceeds to say despite these amazing events he would rather be standing in front of this church preaching his beliefs to this audience because he believes he is making an impact. This question contributes to the hopeful, aggressive tone because King can see the light at the end of the tunnel and is willing to do the unthinkable. King introduces another rhetorical question that states, “Now, what does all this mean in this great period of history?” King uses this as an opportunity to push his call to action onto the audience he asks them to unite in a troubling time in order to capture that sense of equality they have been fighting for.
Within King’s speech lay a series of metaphors to draw a comparison between the shared similarities and to relate one thing the audience is familiar with something almost foreign. One metaphor introduced is, “And there was the fact there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.” He compares the known fact that water always puts out fire to the idea that no amount of discrimination and racist acts will stop African American from fighting for liberty because it is within them and grows like a flame with every small achievement. This is a powerful metaphor because it appeals to the classical elements that are indestructible. However, there is a larger metaphor displayed throughout which is the title “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which means not literally but he has seen the light and has hope that equality is coming soon for the black community, not only has he been to the mountaintop, but he has “seen the Promised Land” which is the glorious salvation and liberty of African Americans everywhere.
Throughout his speech King pulls on the heart strings of his audience and appeals to pathos to strengthen and build his argument. He states in his speech that after having a close encounter with death and being hospitalized, “They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it.” This letter simply said that the young, white female was grateful that he survived and it made King realize what would not have happened if he had passed away. He uses this letter to grab the audience of all races by the heart and force a realization that not everyone will make it to tomorrow, so today is the time for change and to end segregation, discrimination and everything inbetween. Additionally, King finalizes his speech when he makes a reference toward his own death, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And 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!” King knows that death is in his future, but he is not afraid because he can see the light of a new country. This makes the audience realize how intense he is for equality and this quote is even more meaningful due to him being murdered the day after this speech where he alluded to his own death.
This speech by Martin Luther King Jr. was effective in achieving the key purpose of showing his support for the ending of segregation, discremination, and all racist acts through the use of a looming rhetorical question, a compelling metaphor and an appeal to pathos to capture the audience’s heart and grab their attention. He clearly shows his support for the strike in Memphis, Tennessee and encourages them to seek the promised land.