On the night of April 4th 1968 John F. Kennedy gave a speech that would report Martin Luther King’s assassination that had taken place earlier that evening.
The audience he was addressing was made up of both black and white community members. At the time Kennedy gave the speech, members of the community were angry and vengeful of King’s death and others were beginning to panic and what may happen as a consequence.
Below is an analysis of the language used in Kennedy’s speech and the underlying political context that is shown by the words he has chosen.
Camera crews were stationed as the speech was pre-ordained but it was not expected this was the news Kennedy was to be delivering. It was his duty to calm the audience and the people of America and to attempt to resolve the deep rift caused by Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Anger was rife throughout the country as news of King’s death spread, it formed the scene of the crowd Kennedy was to address.
It was of upmost important that Kennedy deliver this speech in the right way. His use of intonation, and speaking would have mattered at the time, and this is probably why much of the speech is made up of simple sentences, repeated structure and contains emotive and personal language that helped him connect with his audience.
Kennedy spoke freely and conversationally. He disposed of formal, rigid structure. To speak from a script would not have had the same impact on his audience. His words were soothing and sympathetic towards the loss the nation had suffered.
He is attempting to capture the tragic nature of this news, connect with the grief of the audience and attempting to bond with them and calm them by showing anger is not the correct way to deal with this, for that is not something Martin Luther King himself would have wanted.
In the sentence ‘Martin Luther King was shot and was killed,’ he is factual. He remains impartial and detached. It shows his responsibility as a president to contain this situation, show no bias, and act as role model to the people of how they should behave in reaction to this news.
It is an understated sentence that demonstrates the wariness of the government in their approach to addressing this situation as they realise King’s murder could provoke acts of violence and controversy. It is their attempt to prevent this from happening by controlling the audience.
Kennedy switches between speaking in this distant, factual manner to also becoming more emotive and personal. He is acknowledging the pain and rage of the people. If he does not then his audience will be disconnected and disenchanted with the message he is trying to communicate.
When he recounts the tale of his experience with murder in his family, he uses personal pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘I’m’ to open up a dialogue with the audience. He is humanising himself so that the audience will relate to him, making him appear honest and trustworthy and someone on their level whom they will listen to.
He singles people out by using plural pronouns in the phrase ‘for those of you.’ It stands out as in the rest of his speech he uses language to unify and create a majority. But here he is shaming the few that may be tempted to act inappropriately, and by doing so he is shunning them from society and making an example of them in order to deter others from doing the same.
Kennedy also acknowledges the real possibility of invoked anger and violence. He is subtly warning people to not act brashly. He is letting them know what is the acceptable manner in which to grieve, and what will not be tolerated.
By using metaphors instead of similes; saying ‘as’ instead of ‘like’ when describing things he depicts the nation as a concrete object and always uses the word ‘will’ instead of ‘might.’ It means there is no room for speculation or doubt in the audience’s mind. He gives the public no choice, he is telling them what they should do and is ordering them, but in a subtle way so that they will not realise this and will respond to it better than a direct instruction.
He gives them the illusion of choice by using the word ‘or’ to present two options to the audience, but really all he is doing is presenting these ideas and outlining why one of them is wrong, and the other is right. ‘Whether they be white or whether they be black’ shows he is not allowing for any exceptions, all of the community must come together.
He uses the phrase ‘you can be’ to lead the audience into a false sense of security which he then twists and advises them against. He makes it sound like his is allowing them these responses, implying he is also in control of their emotions.
Kennedy relies on pushing the ideological values of their society to add power to his message. He speaks of the values and traditions of family, religion and patriotism. He knows these are key beliefs of the people and key motivators that will push them towards acting in the way he wants them to.
Kennedy is making use of this to promote the ideals of family, prayer and patriotism. He presents the ideas as common shared values of the American society and moulds them into effective tools when he sells them as the resolutions to the general public’s upset at this time.
For example the phrase ‘tempted to fill’ is loaded with biblical connotations playing on popular culture of the time the speech was given. Religion was an important pillar of American society and so by portraying the negative behaviours as acts of the devil, he is able to use it to reinforce the perspective of law and morality he believes their society prescribes to.
The words ‘in greater polarisation’ use a contradiction to present the audience with the worst possible outcome that their bad actions could cause. It is meant to act as a shock tactic and a motivator for them to be persuaded into the alternative solution he is providing them with. The word ‘greater’ also suggests that their current predicament is in a malleable state, it is open to change and that if it can get worse, then it can also get better.
It enables Kennedy to engineer the audience’s reaction and by using these systems to present certain behaviours as acceptable and others unacceptable. He is selling the ideal image of a civilised member of society and makes the audience believe that this is all what they want to be and aim for.
To implicate this further he uses Martin Luther King as a role model people should look up to and copy.
Every technique applied in the construction of this speech is used as a form of prevention and control of the audience and to manage the delicate situation that King’s death provoked at the time.
Following King’s death, there were many riots for black civil rights, that did eventually result in more equal rights and less racial discrimination, though racism today is still a prevalent issue all over the world. It is still happening.
Its simple sentence structure and parallelism gives the speech rhythm and emphasis on key subverted ideological ideas. It had been designed to instil a sense of responsibility in the audience, to soothe them but also to divert any violent reactions they may have in response to the incident.
The delicate manner that the speech is written in shows the responsibility that lies on Kennedy as he tries to prevent this from happening while also mourning the tragic death of a well-admired and inspirational individual.