Election 2008

Will Obama Channel MLK in His Acceptance Speech?

Obama will accept the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of "I Have A Dream."
The bestselling book in America is The Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, author of the anti-Kerry screed, Unfit for Command. We may soon hear Obama's critics claim he is no Martin Luther King, Jr. They're right: The two men's careers could not be more different; no one would compare them if they weren't both black. (In fact, the comparison can be a clever way to distract from the fact that many are hostile to Obama simply because of his race.) Tonight, Obama will accept the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of "I Have A Dream," so it is worth looking closely at oratory-where the two men have the most in common-to see what Obama can learn from King.

The bad news first: Obama has a tendency to talk too fast. If you doubt this, compare the breakneck pace of his 2004 convention address to "I Have A Dream": At the five-minute mark, Obama has let loose 659 words while King is still at 459. Obama occasionally speaks over applause lines. King paused after he said, "I have a dream," and the audience clapped and shouted back to him. But Obama sometimes skips the break after a repeated phrase like "Let's be the generation" or "There is something happening."

The substance of their speeches is often similar; they both draw from the founding documents of America and the Bible. King started "I Have A Dream" with the Gettysburg Address ("Fivescore years ago . . ."), quoted the Declaration of Independence twice, and ended with the lyrics of "America." Obama structured his race speech in Philadelphia around "We the people," and, in his 2004 convention address, quoted "E pluribus unum" and the Declaration of Independence.

King quoted Bible verses in "I Have A Dream," and nearly every metaphor was Biblical -- the "joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity," for example, echoed Matthew 4:16, "the people which sat in darkness saw great light." Obama quotes Scripture as well, but he also uses Biblical language more subtly, as in his 2004 convention speech, when he referred to the "belief in things not seen, the belief that there are better days ahead" -- a reference to the famous definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 -- and spoke of the nation's emergence from a "long political darkness." (Most astutely, when he said in the same speech that "we worship an awesome God in the Blue States," he was echoing not just the Bible but the evangelical praise chorus "Our God is an Awesome God.")

It would be a mistake for Obama to deliver a sequel to "I Have A Dream." King's genius was in persuading his audience that his visions of an America free from racism would one day be realized -- no small feat in 1963, when much of his audience had traveled from the segregated South. But the "I have a vision of the future" device is rarely so successful: Both President Carter and Senator Clinton used the repeated phrase "I see an America." (Clinton said, "I see an America where we don't just provide health care for some people or most people, but for every single man, woman and child, that no one is left out.") Obama should not structure the most important speech of his life around an ineffective device deployed most recently by his chief rival for the Democratic nomination.

The two sources he shares with King are much better. The brief phrase, "one nation, under God," emphasizes his Christian faith while echoing his "one America" argument from the 2004 convention and addressing the email smear that he will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Obama's themes of change and hope parallel the new dawn in Isaiah and Matthew, and he should continue to use Biblical metaphors. (The connection between politics and God's redemptive plan is arguably blasphemous, but King himself made it with the motto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: "To redeem the soul of America.")

King was a national figure when he delivered "I Have A Dream," but he still faced considerable hostility, with segregationist Senators claiming he was an un-American Communist. The popularity of Corsi's book shows Obama is in a similar position. King used the Bible and America's founding documents to suggest his campaign was in the greatest traditions of the nation. Obama should do the same: It will be his ticket to the Oval Office.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.
Drew D. Hansen is the author of The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation. He is raising money for Obama's presidential campaign.
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