It may seem a bit trivial on Dr. Martin Luther King Day to focus on one aspect of the craft that made him a great leader. Wasn’t he much more than a great orator, a man who inspired not just with word but with deeds? Didn’t he march bravely in front of the dogs and the firehoses and men with guns, inspiring by walking as much as talking?
For everything Dr. King accomplished in his life there was much left to do when he was brought down. It’s up to us to carry on and inspire our friends and neighbors to stand up, march proudly, and make a difference.
The craft of Dr. King’s life came equally from the homilies of sermons and the bubbling reaction of the crowds who came to listen. There was much more to him than the careful cadence of measured speech, the poetry of language set on fire in the hearts of those around him – yet it was essential to the movement.
A cadence is a simple device in speech – a repeated rhythm usually sent home with repeated phrases. Each sentence has the sense of an ending to it, a conclusion that allows it to stand alone before the windup to the next time the rhythm comes forward. It sounds simple explained in technical terms, but it has to come from deep inside. It has to come from a well of passion, craft, and reaction.
Take for example the “I Have a Dream” speech, which will be repeated often today. Dr. King addressed the huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial with prepared remarks that were running a bit flat towards the middle. He knew it, too. The crowd had been excited and bubbling, but started to fall silent and distant. That’s when Mahalia Jackson, standing behind King after singing her introduction, can be heard in the back saying, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” King left his prepared remarks and started in –
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
Not much of a cadence. The rhythm of English had yet to take over at this time, but the crowd perked up. It was getting somewhere.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Stop right there for a moment and you can feel the cadence developing. The repeated phrase “I have a dream” can be said in iambic time, soft-hard-soft-hard. It’s the rhythm of English, something like a march that prefers to dance with a backbeat. Beyond that repeated phrase is something ancient, already deep in the guts of everyone listening. The crowd was responding, fueling this improvised journey away from prepared remarks forward.
The essence of Cadence is there, complete with the devices that send it home deep into the soul of every listener. It is more than a repeated phrase, it is a call to action across time and the spaces inbetween our lives.
Cadence is not used very often today, in part because our common culture is falling apart. A speaker can use the rhythm of English and repeat a few lines, but the deep roots of oration do not live in our souls as they once did. Many speeches are delivered on teevee, without a crowd to respond to and gauge how it is working. The great craft of Dr. King is in danger of passing into history.
Today, oration is rarely used to galvanize and call to action, but far more likely to pacify.
On Dr. Martin Luther King Day, there are many things to remember about what happened nearly fifty years past. Dr. King himself was more than talk, but his craft was essential to making real change happen. We suffer in the decline of cadence, a device far more complex than it seems.
Cadence comes to those who practice the craft carefully, refining and honing it. Cadence comes from deep inside, flowing freely. Cadence comes from passion crystallizing culture in word. Cadence comes from fire in the eyes of crowds. Cadence comes from the spaces inbetween collapsing the multitudes into one solid body, ready for action.
Cadence comes to a culture when it is ready for something much more than words. Cadence is language made into action. Cadence will come back to us when we are ready for action, ready for leadership, ready to sieze our lives together and make a genuine difference.