Rhetorical Analysis Paper- Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

Analysis Paper- Martin Luther King Jr. “Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech”

Martin Luther King Jr. has been an iconic man since the civil rights movement began, even forty odd years later his speeches are still studied and referenced.  He had a profound impact on the lives of millions of Americans and people around the world. This is why we study his words. He was a man of integrity and passion, two things that draw an audience to the speaker. His words were spoken genuinely and eloquently making it very hard to forget the message he gave. This man helped change the course of history in America. He was one of the many leaders of the civil rights movement, organizing non-violent protests, planning marches to protest, and visualizing the future for people who had no hope.
There are so many notable speeches that he gave throughout his life, but one that is easily overlooked, but nonetheless impactful is his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. This speech was given on December 10, 1964 in Oslo, Norway. He was awarded this prestigious award for his peaceable movement to end injustice in America. This award gave recognition not only to King, but also to the civil rights movement.

Historical Background

January 15, 1929, the man who would be a catalyst in the changing of a nation was born. His name Michael Luther King Jr. later changed to Martin. He attended the segregated public schools in Georgia and graduated from high school at the age of 15; unprecedented for a negro at this time. He then went on to obtain a B.A. degree from Morehouse College in 1948 and then went on to get his doctorate at Boston University in 1953. It was there in Boston that he met Coretta Scott, an ambitious and highly intellectual woman. King and his wife Coretta had four children, two sons and two daughters. This impacts his lifestyle dramatically, not only because they are raising children but because they were raising their children in a highly segregated and hateful time for Negroes. Luther’s children will have a huge impact on his future, they will be a reason that he fights so hard for civil rights, because he wants his kids to live in a period of peace and not experience the hate that he has endured. By 1954 King was a member of the executive committee of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and a strong supporter of civil rights for Negroes.
The Civil Rights movement really took off in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a member of the NAACP, refused to give up her seat for a white passenger and was arrested. She was tried and convicted for disorderly conduct and violating a civil ordinance. The word of this event reached the black community and they staged the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest the injustice of the public transportation system. King was the leader of this boycott, he directed it and participated in it himself; this protest made him a national figure and his Christian ethics and elegant speaking techniques made him into a positive figure in the South.  There were many events that continued on in the South that caused protests such as Sit-ins and Freedom Rides, these were the rebellions the people of the South used in order to draw attention to their cause. All the while, Luther was speaking on the importance of non-violent protests, he believed that you cannot sink to the oppressor’s level, you must rise above that. He strongly followed the protest beliefs of Gandhi. In 1963 King spoke at the March on Washington which was a huge success. It was there that he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, without contest one of his most famous speeches.

Speech  Analysis

King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his actions in the civil rights movement. He had spent most of his lifetime dedicated to bring about freedom for the Negro. He worked endlessly on the acceptance of the African American people to be recognized as citizens of this country and given the same rights as white people. This speech was given in Oslo, Norway on the occasion of acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. King was to give this speech as a thank you, or a ceremonial speech; however he changed the nature of it to be something much more than a simple acceptance speech. When thinking of an acceptance speech I think immediately of ones given at banquets or at the Academy Awards. However, King surprised me, and I’m sure many others, when he gave a speech that mirrored others he has given. He chose to speak on the subject of the civil rights movement, something that was profoundly linked to his lifestyle.
             Despite this speech being an acceptance speech, King spoke from the heart about the issue that brought him to Norway; the mistreatment of millions of Negro people. This is an indirectly persuasive speech, it is given at a ceremony for the Nobel Prize winners, which includes King. He was accepting the award on behalf of all the people fighting nonviolently for this cause (the civil rights movement). He was using this occasion as a platform for furthering his cause, and rightly so. He had the international stage to shed further light on the injustice prevailing in America.
            After reading the speech I was confused as to who exactly heard the speech, but then I looked in the award ceremonies for the Nobel Prizes and the intended audiences are the Nobel Prize committee, Norwegian royalty and specially invited guests. He did not intend to rile the crowd up to take action, rather to bring light on the situation in America and all over the world; the injustice of inequality and the hate that humans can bear for other humans.
            King is a brilliant rhetorician, he knows how to appeal to his audience and he knows the right words to use at the right time. He is currently accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, peace, which is something he is fighting for. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo Norway, a place that has been relatively peaceful in its nature. The Peace Prize is awarded to a person that covers any of the following criteria: works towards advocacy of human rights, mediation or international conflicts or arms control. That being said, King was awarded this lofty prize and he was told to give a speech to the members of the Norwegian Parliament, Royal family, and specially invited quests. This audience takes great pride in Alfred Nobel and the legacy he left behind, they highly regard the winners of the Nobel Prizes and the Peace Prize is one of the most treasured. King uses this mentality to his advantage.
He knows that he will be given time to speak on the issues he has fought for, but instead of focusing solely on the United States struggle for equality, he broadens his strokes and encompasses the World’s hope for peace and equality everywhere. This was a most excellent choice on his part, to talk about where he sees the World going and how he visualizes what the future could be; something that everyone wants to see for the world.  He also appeals to the idea of waging a revolution without violence; this is a huge ideal for someone to be holding onto. The Second World War ended just 20 years ago and people still remember the horrors of it. Martin Luther King Jr. is fighting a type of war, and he is doing so without resorting to violence. He has his beliefs and he speaks about them often. He is holding to his beliefs despite danger and imprisonment. He speaks about the nonviolent protestations and marches that he has been a part of; making reference to the people of India (Gandhi) and how they also fought peacefully for their freedom. He knew that his audience holds much stock in the peaceful revolution, and he has accomplished that. This greatly appeals to his audience and the values that they hold.
            King’s specific purpose was to accept the Noble Peace Prize on behalf of all the men and women all over the world fighting the injustice that incapacitates them. He is accepting this award for the hundreds of thousands of people whose names will never make the newspaper headlines and will never be named for peacefully fighting against oppression. He spoke to renew hope in all those people. His purpose is to paint a picture of the future, to remind them of what they are fighting for; equality, love, and brotherhood for all people.
             The organization of King’s speeches has never crossed my mind before, however after reading this speech I found some interesting techniques he uses. This speech is organized topically for the most part. Because it is first and foremost a ceremonial speech the organization is not the most obvious. There are also parts that follow the Motivated Sequence. He hooks the audience by stating a reality- that 22 million Negro people are fighting racial injustice while he is accepting an award. Then he states the cause that he has been fighting for, the people that he has been fighting against, and the people he is fighting for; this section of the speech is also why the audience has gathered together, they need to know why they have gathered to hear this man speak (their need). He uses a lot of visualization in this speech, showing what he believes America and the world could one day look like. He talks a great deal about what he thinks the world could be the potential that is waiting to be grasped by humanity.  
King effectively fits his message to the circumstances of the time and the audience. People all over the world are fighting against inequality and he is on the world stage accepting a speech on their behalf. He could not have gotten this award at a better time. He is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at a time when the world is starved for peace and equality for its people. Because his message is being delivered at the right time, the content of his message is very relatable and helps his audience identify with him. He immediately identifies with the Negros in America and their continuing struggles, and although he has not experienced the struggles of those in India and South Africa, he knows they are fighting peaceably and they can identify with his speech through that ideal.
           Martin Luther King Jr. has left his mark on history not just by the work he accomplished in the civil rights movement, but also because of his eloquent speaking. He has a natural ability to persuade others to his cause, his tonality, passion, and extemporaneous style held many millions of people in awe of him. This speech was no exception. He painted word pictures using outstanding visual imaging. One example of his expertise with visual imagery is “I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.” There is more than one type of imagery being used in this statement alone such as kinetic, visual, and tactile. He also is using personification in this statement.
I found that reading through this speech King uses personification quite a bit for example: “grinding poverty…that chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.” His use of personification helps the audience get a mental image of the poverty that is striking the Negro people. It also creates an emotional connection to the speaker and the audience; he talking about all “his” people not just “those” people. He can identify with the audience because he is living out the same reality they are, thus creating ethos, or credibility. Ethos is incredibly important to create in rhetoric, King recognizes this and tells the audience why they should trust his words. He begins his speech not only in a dramatic way, but in a way that lets the audience know that he has seen what he speaks of, that he has experienced the inequality he strives to end. He starts the speech by saying “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end a long night of racial injustice.” He goes on to talk of the horrors that just recently occurred, about the bombing of 40 churches that agreed to segregation, to people dying at the hands of the police and their brutal dogs. These words serve to shock and inform the audience of the reality of the situation in America.
There are so many ways that King’s use of language influences the audience. But one very effective way that he has used in multiple speeches is repetition of words and phrases, also known as anaphora. In this particular speech he uses four different phrases repeatedly in four paragraphs. As he does this, it drives his point home. When he talks of accepting the Nobel Peace Prize he says accepts it only as “an audacious faith in the future of mankind,” he goes on to state “I refuse to accept…” This use of anaphora is a powerful one because in the midst of an acceptance speech he talks of what he will not accept; the very antithesis of an acceptance speech. He could not have picked a better speech to state what he refuses to accept about humanity and the way people are treated.
The four instances that King uses anaphora come in an interesting order. In his first paragraph he says “I am mindful” to show that he knows the current situation of the Negroes and he has seen the oppression they face. The second paragraph he says “I refuse to accept” in reference to the things he is fighting. The next use of anaphora is “I believe that”, this is a use of visualization. He paints a picture of what the future could hold for mankind; this is a hopeful turn in the speech. The last time he utilizes anaphora it is near the end of the speech, when he tells the audience for whom he accepting the award and the struggle they recognize by giving this award during the civil rights movement by saying “You honor.” This is a powerful way to end his speech. Clarifying that he is not the only person who made this prize a possibility, that he has not worked alone, there are others who are fighting as hard to end the midnight of racial injustice.


After having read this speech I am more convinced than ever that Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most powerful speakers of the 20th century. He had the skill and passion needed to move people into action and he did so. Even though this speech was not meant as a call to action, the way he spoke of the potential of the world gave people a renewed strength and hope in humanity. After WWII and now the extreme oppression of the Negro people, there seemed to be no hope for humanity to come together as brothers. But after hearing a speech like this, one can’t help but be moved to have faith once again.


Works Cited in this paper:

“Martin Luther King – Acceptance Speech”. Nobelprize.org. 22 Feb 2012 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.html


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