The supposedly historic legal case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, turns fifty this year. The court’s decision declared unconstitutional racial segregation in public schools.
Anyone even moderately familiar with America’s school systems knows that the ruling did not stop segregation. Even a half a century since that 1964 case, most school districts in America are either predominantly white or predominately black.
Recent editorials have debated the progress of mandatory desegregation, instituted just two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though progress has not been satisfactory with either piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act has been the more effective. Part of the reason is because of King’s powerful speech.
There is beauty throughout the oration, which reinforces the paradise of equality that is King’s ultimate vision. Every paragraph flows with poetic devices such as metaphors, imagery and alliteration.
The opening paragraph calls the Emancipation Proclamation “a great beacon light of hope to millions of slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” Two powerful metaphors have been deliciously wrapped within a sentence of just 17 words.
One paragraph later King speaks for those “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” adding rhyme to an already stellar metaphor. Then he adds alliteration to the next metaphor, pointing out that “the negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
The first half of the speech turns from past to present with an extended metaphor involving financial transactions. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he says. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were issuing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . . The promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He then criticizes America for having “defaulted on this promissory note” and “given to the negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” He closes the extended metaphor with a refusal “to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
The speech subsequently turns to hope, which King again embellishes with metaphors. “It is time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of social justice,” he states. Then he espouses that “now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
When he preaches non-violence in the latter half of the speech, King maintains his employment of the metaphor. He warns, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
King ends the speech, appropriately, with vivid imagery of sound and song. He promises that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” This metaphor leads into the lines of America the Beautiful, encouraging all to join hands to sing, “Let freedom ring.”
Though both the speech and Brown v. Topeka Board of Education share a desire to eliminate inequality, the poetry in the speech guarantees that it will always have more of an impact on American society. It is the same way a young Bob Dylan was able to move more people politically in the early 1960s than all of the politicians combined.