Writing Exercise: Rhetoric in Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Speeches

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Read the excerpts from speeches by civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (below). In the speeches both men refer to early 1960s bombings of black churches in Alabama where people were injured and children killed. The bombings were committed by white racists. Although both men address the same subject–violence and racism–both address the topic with very different rhetorical approaches. It is interesting to note that both men were close in age and both had fathers who were preachers. You can definitely see the influence of traditional sermons in both speech styles.

For this exercise, briefly discuss which man’s techniques you personally find more persuasive, and why. Mention how the speaker uses ethos, pathos and/or logos to persuade his audience (See the handout The Rhetorical Triangle


in this week’s module). Then, provide one example of a line from each speaker that you find particularly compelling, and explain why the line works for you as a reader. This exercise is meant to help you into the rhetorical mode of thinking when finalizing your paper. Try to constantly ask yourself, “am I being convincing here?” or “how can I make this more persuasive or believable?” Always consider how the reader might react to what you write.

As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got any blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark. I hate to say this about us, but it’s true. How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time you are going to get violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else you don’t even know?If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black ‘women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

–Malcolm X, Speech excerpt, Nov. 1963, New York City

I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don’t believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn’t want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn’t know how to return the treatment.”

— Malcolm X, Speech Excerpt, Dec. 12 1964, New York City


The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. You may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. You may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate, nor establish love. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.”Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” 1967

I cannot make myself believe that God wanted me to hate. I’m tired of violence, I’ve seen too much of it. I’ve seen such hate on the faces of too many sheriffs in the South. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. Our oppressors have used violence. Our oppressors have used hatred. Our oppressors have used rifles and guns. I’m not going to stoop down to their level. We have a power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I contend that non-violent acts exert pressure far more effective than violent acts, for the pressure comes from goodwill and gentleness.

— Mahatma Gandhi

I firmly believe that the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957

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