The rhetorical study to be undertaken is that of Robert F. Kennedy’s iconic address, which he delivered without advance notice after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing in America in the late 1960s, and the nation was facing a major cultural change. Racial strife was the order of the day, and African-Americans around the country rallied behind politicians with the aim of ensuring real equality. Martin Luther King Jr. was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, and when he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, the world was shocked. By then, Robert F. Kennedy was the leading Democratic candidate for the 1968 election and had a timeline routine tour to Indianapolis on April 4th when he heard the tragic demise of Martin Luther. Although the local chief in Indianapolis advised him to take the safer option of not going out, Robert F. Kennedy ventured out at the heart of the city, which had mostly African-American people and delivered an impromptu speech which is widely known as the “Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” In his speech, he uses rhetorical devices that help him effectively suppress an emotionally distressed crowd aiming to keep America united.
Firstly, Robert F. Kennedy manages to include the use of both pathos and logos appeals. He removes political elements from his speech when he requests the crowd in support of him to put away the campaign signs-“could you lower those signs, please?” By doing so, he addresses the audience not as a politician but as a fellow American who has lost an important person and places himself in the position of the audience, which makes his speech have a human element allowing him to advocate for peace (Kennedy). Also, when he talks about the assassination of his brother-“I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.” it enables him to be at an equal emotional ground level just like the crowd and emotionally connecting with them. Bringing the skin color identity of his brother killer, demonstrate that crime has no limit and exclude no one. The usage of the logical appeal in his speech helps to suppress the hatred and anger gathering in the emotionally charged crowd and also helps diffuse the racial tension between the white and black people in the country. The audience was supporters of Martin Luther and his movement, and hence by the use of logos, Kennedy was able to convince them to follow Martin Luther message and his movement and warned them that hatred was not good for the well- being of the nation.
Secondly, he uses anaphora in his speech where he lists what action the nation needs and does not need to take to stay unified as a country. The repetition of the phrase “what we need in the United States… (Kennedy)” clearly brings out this aspect of anaphora which unites the people by aiming at a common goal while soaring for peace. Also, the audience is in desperate need of an advice and consolation, and he brings intentional allusion when he reads an extract from the Aeschylus poem. The content of the poem gives them wise words, comfort and instill hope unto them when it says, “In our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”
Consequently, in his speech he employed the oratorical resonance of parallel constructions where he said, “we will have difficult times-we’ve had difficult times in the past, but we-and we will have difficult times in the future. Applying this rhetorical device made his speech to become more memorable to his audience while contemplating its meaning of peace and unity among them. More so, he further unifies the crowd by intentionally alternating the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘we’ in the speech. After he admits that “you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and desire for revenge,” he follows up with, “we can move in that direction … we can make an effort, spread across our land … (Kennedy)” the intentional alternation eliminates the racism barrier.
Moreover pressed by time, the impromptu speech evidently shown the sense of urgency although he was also too obviously affected by the death of Martin Luther King Jr., he was the first to announce the sad demise. The timing of the speech worked well considering no riots took place in Indianapolis as compared to other major cities around the country and throughout the speech he had a wise calming voice.
Despite the brevity and improvised nature of the speech, Robert F. Kennedy rhetoric was effective since the utterances impacted them and he was able to prevent potential rioters by urging them to “say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King … – …to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love.” The effectiveness of his rhetoric is evidenced by the calmness that ensued in Indianapolis after he made the speech while in other cities there were demonstrations and rioting.
Kennedy, Robert F. Top 100 Speeches. 4 April 1968. <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkonmlkdeath.html>.