Obama Inaugural Address pays homage to King’s rhetoric in form and in substance

President Obama shared the limelight with Dr. King yesterday.  King, a man President Obama has called his North Star, a man he described as having  “prophetic eloquence,” left his imprint on the Inaugural address and the festivities.   Mason, Julie, Politico, MLK’s dream in view, activists at a distance, 10/14/11, www.politico.com/news/stories/1011/65936.html

Reread the Inaugural address (“Address”).  Doesn’t it remind you of King’s I have a Dream speech (“Speech”)?  I know that Speech well, having taught it to fifth grade gifted and talented students every January for a number of years.

Yesterday, Obama stood in front of the masses congregated on the mall and turned to King—literally and figuratively—for support in conveying his vision.

There are plenty of the thematic similarities between the Speech and the Address:

Both men turned to the same creed, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence

Both men talked about individual freedoms, and journeys and hope

Both men talked about the need to act NOW:   “urgency of the moment (Speech)” or the need “act in our time (Address)” or “we cannot afford delay (Address).”

Both men sent the message that things would not return to “business as usual.”

Both men set an agenda, though their issues were different.  In fact, President Obama laid out some stunning objectives, including action on climate change and gay rights

Obama considers King one of the greatest—if not the greatest--orator in our lifetime.  It’s true that King put down his notes during the Speech and simply spoke to his followers from his heart.  Still, Obama can hold his own.  Though their styles differ, they rely on some of the same literary tools.  Yesterday, Obama used anaphora (repetition of word(s) at the beginning of a sentence) as much--or even more –than King.  In his Tribune column today, Eric Zorn counted 67 uses of “we” and 76 uses of “our.”  Just for fun, count the numbers of “together,” “We, the people,” and “our journey is not complete.”

Both men used alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds in a word, to emphasize a point.  King described the “sweltering summer” of the Negro’s discontent.  Obama reminded us of historic examples of inequality:  Seneca Falls, and Selma and Stonewall.   Alliteration slows the speaker down and enables the listener to make connections.

Metaphors are a powerful way to make students think about the content.  Every student understands the significance of King’s “dream” metaphor, often referred to as a sustained metaphor because it was used throughout the Speech.  While Obama’s use of metaphor is more limited, he shored up the United States’ global image by calling it the “anchor of strong alliances of every corner in the globe.”

Yesterday, Obama conjured up images, some of which were strikingly similar to those in the Speech.  King described slaves as being “seared in the flames of withering injustice.”  Obama spoke of “our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost… the price that is paid for liberty.”  And Obama vividly painted the consequences of climate change:  raging fires, and crippling drought.   Just as King took us on his journey for freedom through states in the south and “the slums and ghettos of our Northern Cities, Obama, advocating for safety and security, marched us through the streets of Detroit, the hills of Appalachia, and the quiet lanes of Newtown.

One of Kings’ greatest rhetorical skills was the ability to use opposites to make a point.   In the Speech, he lamented that one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation] “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”  Obama used the same strategy to point out economic outcomes:  “we know that America thrives…when the wages of honest labor liberates families from the brink of hardship.”

Yes, Dr. King influenced this historic and charged Address, but he also influenced the inaugural event.  Fifty years ago, when he gave the Speech, King stood in front of the masses in the mall and was empowered by their spirit.  Yesterday, President Obama paid homage to that moment in the Address:

“The most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still…just as it guided all those men and women…who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

There is no doubt that President Obama was equally moved by the masses in the mall.  Emotional after the inaugural festivities concluded, President Obama, started to depart and then stopped, turned around and insisted on taking a look “one more time.  I’m not going to see this again.”  Obama’s Inaugural Address, I want to take a look at one more time, Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/21

But we will.  We will see many more speeches and inaugural addresses from stirring orators who enliven their visions with themes, images, and other literary devices.

And 5th grade students will continue to analyze and identify historic relationships and connections.

That’s my dream, anyway.


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  • The difference between MLK and Obama is Obama is a socialist while MLK just wanted equality without taking anything from anybody.

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