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How MLK mesmerized the crowd

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

One of the greatest orators of the 20th century focused on his audience’s viewpoint, used rat-a-tat repetition, then switched tone to add power to his speeches.

In March 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a church full of striking black sanitation workers in Memphis after police had attacked them with truncheons and mace.

Study these examples for some basic training on improving your delivery:
  1. King honored his audience’s mission and unity:

    • “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor.”

    • “You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.”

    • “Now, our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”

  2. He used repetition for emphasis:

    • “We are tired. We are tired of being at the bottom. [“Yes!”] We are tired … We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen.”

    • “Power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to effect change … and I want you to stick it out so that you will be able to make Mayor Henry Loeb and others say ‘Yes’ even when they want to say ‘No.’”

  3. He switched to a conversational rhythm to hush the crowd and drive his point home:

    • “Now you know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union, I tell you what you ought to do—and you are together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”
King’s words had their desired effect, making the workers feel that their efforts forged a central part of the civil rights movement rather than a diversion from the march on Washington.

Only a month later, King would be assassinated when he returned to Memphis to support the strike.

—Adapted from At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster.

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