The Oratory of a People

This unity of the whole rests on how each speech represents a phase in the African-American population’s ongoing argument.

Review of: The Will of a People: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches, edited by Richard W. Leeman and Bernard K. Duffy (2012). 

“A great speech,” wrote the noted Dublin man of letters Tom Kettle in his introduction to a 1916 collection of Irish orations, “must have in it passion, structure, and beauty.” In his typical efficient fashion, Kettle was not only making a broad point about the elements of a noteworthy address; he also provided a helpful test for future compilers of speech anthologies who must wrestle with that eternal question of what to include, and what to leave out. 

Each of the 22 speeches by 20 African-American speakers appearing in The Will of a People would satisfy Kettle’s three-point criteria. As a historian of his native Ireland’s political speeches, Kettle would also applaud how each speech in Will of a People is accompanied by a short research essay with background on the speaker and the occasion of the address.

In its historical sweep and scholarly yet approachable tone, Will of a People is a very worthy successor to past similar anthologies, and will hopefully stimulate further exploration of African-American oratory. The current moment of global political ferment around issues of social inequality, which speakers and speechwriters alike must carefully navigate, makes Will of a People’s content particularly relevant. 

As the introduction notes, while each African-American speaker represents a “distinctive voice” drawn from the period from 1832 to 2009, together they unify into a cohesive whole. The effect is similar to the one described in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 “quilt” speech, where he observed that “[e]ven in our fractured state [as an American political community], all of us count and fit somewhere.” (Not surprisingly, that speech is reprinted in Will of a People.)

This unity of the whole rests on how each speech represents, (as Will of a People’s editors put it) a phase in the African-American population’s ongoing argument “on behalf of broader freedom for the whole community, not merely their own portion of it.” What begins with speakers like Maria W. Miller Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet and Henry McNeal Turner in the 19thcentury is carried forward into the 20th century by Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm and Malcolm X—and continues into the 21st century, through Barack Obama (whose 2009 inaugural appears in Will of a People) and others.   

These speeches are further linked together in that, whatever period of time they originate from (pre-Civil-War, post-Civil War, the civil rights era, etc.), they are intensely concerned with practical problems and real-world issues. The addresses gathered here tell the story of a community’s resilience and optimism (and humor) in the face of historical injustices, inequality, oppression and poverty – and of a constant push by determined activists over many decades to enact concrete solutions, sustained by the faith that, with persistence and patience, ways forward could be found.  

Lastly, these speeches also simultaneously have a shared intention of trying to transmit ideas about what forms political and economic progress could take, and how to bring those changes about. So these speeches thus have an additional common focus on (as the chapter on Marion Wright Edelman puts it) shifting audiences to be “doers,” active and engaged in the cause, rather than just passive “hearers.”  

That, surely, is another measure of a “great speech”—and one more reason for this book to go in every speechwriter’s library.

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