On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped up to a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what would become the signature speech of the American civil rights movement. You know the words. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Today, the high points of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are so familiar to most Americans that there is some danger of the speech fading into mere orthodoxy.
But it was not always so. In a confidential memo following the speech, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division gave this assessment of King:
Personally I believe in the light of King’s demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation . . .
In a sense, the FBI was right. King was the most “dangerous” leader of the civil rights movement, just not in the way the FBI thought. The danger King posed was his ability to influence the nation to effect real change in the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans. If he was dangerous, it was because he was inspirational and persuasive.
Persuasiveness is critical for lawyers, especially litigators, who are called upon to persuade judges, juries, and arbitrators—and from time to time their own clients and the opposing party. So aside from the obvious political and historical significance of the “I Have a Dream” speech, I wondered what it could teach lawyers and other humans about effective persuasion.
There is of course King’s incomparable speaking style. Just the sound of his voice still gives me goosebumps. And the brilliant way he wove Biblical references and imagery into his message must have resonated with a large part of his audience.
But for most of us, adopting King’s speaking style would be too much to pull off. So what can the substance of the speech teach us about effective persuasion? For me, two things stand out.
First, King rejected radicalism. He brilliantly characterized his demand for civil rights as delivering on the nation’s founding principles, not as a revolution seeking to establish new principles. Second, King rejected what we might call moderate gradualism. He made it clear his movement was insisting on immediate and substantial political change.
As we will see, these were two sides of the same coin.
King’s first rhetorical move was to characterize the struggle for civil rights as the fulfillment of the promises made in the founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, using the metaphor of a check or promissory note:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This interpretation of the nation’s founding seems almost obvious now, but it is not universally shared. The “white nationalist” would say that when Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he really meant that all white men are equal. After all, Jefferson himself was a slaveholder.
And this view is not necessarily confined to neo-Nazis or white supremacists. There are radicals on the left who effectively agree with the white nationalist view that America’s founding was essentially racist. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” Malcolm X said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.”
In a sense, the radicals agree with the white nationalists that America’s founding documents excluded non-whites (this is before we even get to the further complication of the status of women). The difference is whether they view this as a good or bad thing.
On the whole, I disagree with the radical interpretation, but reasonable people have to concede that it is at least a plausible interpretation. So Martin Luther King could have adopted the radical view in the “I Have a Dream” speech. He could have rejected America’s founding documents as excluding African-Americans. He could have proposed a revolution, a new founding. But of course that’s not what he did.
Instead of rejecting America’s founding as racist, or as a fraud, King interpreted America’s founding documents as a promise of equality encompassing all races. He interpreted “all men are created equal” as universal.
But King did not sugarcoat the blunt reality that America had reneged on the promise:
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
This was a brilliant rhetorical device. With the promissory note metaphor, King laid claim to America’s founding principles on behalf of all races, while simultaneously acknowledging that his race had been excluded from enjoying the benefits of those principles.
And here’s the important thing for persuaders to understand: Whether this interpretation of the founding was historically or philosophically accurate was not the point. The point was to inspire and persuade the audience.
The “I Have a Dream” speech really had two audiences: followers who were already committed to civil rights and moderate whites who were on the fence. King needed to inspire his followers to continue the struggle and to persuade the moderates to get off the fence.
King saw that reinterpreting the American founding as universal was the right way to persuade the moderates. “I’m not leading a revolution against your values,” he was essentially saying to them, “I’m leading a movement to require you to live up to your own stated values.” Paradoxically, his rejection of the radical approach was part of what made him so “dangerous,” to borrow the FBI’s term.
And this leads us the second key point about the “I Have a Dream” speech: the rejection of moderate gradualism. King made it clear his movement insisted on real, immediate reform:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. . . .
Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.
These words made it plain that King’s earlier invocation of America’s universal principle of equality was not merely abstract or aspirational.
The rhetoric of “whirlwinds of revolt” may have been jarring to white moderates, but it was an essential counterpart to invoking the nation’s founding principles. Without the insistence on immediate change, the promissory note metaphor would have been merely abstract. The other side of the coin was that “gradual” change wasn’t going to cut it.
This is not to say that moderation and gradualism are always wrong. Depending on the situation, the right approach to any political problem could be conservatism (maintaining the status quo), radicalism (revolting against the status quo), or moderation (gradual reform).
But I think Martin Luther King correctly sensed in 1963 that it was time to push for immediate and lasting reform. The arc of history may ultimately bend towards justice, but windows of opportunity don’t stay open very long in politics. You have to know when to seize the opportunity to make a major change. And major change would come soon after the “I Have a Dream” speech, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This gives us the second lesson about persuasion. It’s usually not enough to persuade the audience that your point of view is correct. You’ve got to persuade them to do something about it, even if it’s something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Once you’ve got people nodding their heads in agreement with you, then you have to push them out of their “comfort zone.”
You have to convince them that, in King’s words, “now is the time to make justice a reality.”
What a dangerous idea.
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.