Breaking down MLK’s most noted addresses
The Miller Center's Mary Kate Cary, a Bush 41 speechwriter, on what made Dr. King unique
As the author of more than 100 of President George H. W. Bush’s speeches, Mary Kate Cary can spot a good address. In fact, the adjunct professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Politics has collected 30 of them for her students to analyze this spring as part of a “Democracy Out Loud” class.
Her list is labeled “the greatest speeches in American history” on the class syllabus. It’s been compiled through research from a variety of reputable sources such as 50 Speeches That Made the Modern World, by Chambers publishing company, and My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of American’s Presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, by Michael Waldman.
Martin Luther King gets people to say, ‘Let us march.’
Naturally, addresses by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—and one about the prominent leader of the civil rights movement, delivered following his assassination in April 1968—make Cary’s list.
King is widely regarded as one of the best public speakers of all time. Cary, who’s also a senior fellow at the UVA Miller Center of Public Affairs, said the motivational nature of King’s speeches, akin to the famous Greek orator Demosthenes, is what sets him apart.
“Martin Luther King gets people to say, ‘Let us march,’” Cary said. “That’s different than listening to a speech and saying, ‘Wow, that was a pretty good speaker. They delivered that well.’ Well, that’s not the point. The point is to motivate people to get off the couch and either donate their money or volunteer their time or buy your product or vote for your candidate. That’s the point of a great speech.
“With Martin Luther King, his prior background as a Baptist minister and a preacher really fed into his cadence, his speaking style, his ability to deliver a speech off the cuff without notes, his biblical references that he could then build upon.
“A lot of his prior experience is what made him a great speaker, but also made him a unique voice in American history—one that no one else has ever been able to replicate.”
Ahead of MLK Day, Cary broke down for UVA Today four speeches involving King.