Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.
—Coretta Scott King

Half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the language of those activists endures and continues to inspire and galvanise calls for equality the world over. From Beyoncé’s new video to speeches on the presidential campaign trail, the mastery of civil rights discourse still has clout and currency.

Folk Preacher: Martin Luther King

The language of civil rights was born from a place of injustice and reflected the speech of the preachers of African American churches. From the pulpits of the South to the Lincoln Memorial, rallying words from the likes of Martin Luther King have now traveled the world. Though he was educated in Western theology and philosophy, studies of the papers of Martin Luther King show that this education had little influence on his great speeches. Instead, MLK’s orations echoed the Baptist sermons of his father and grandfather and also of white liberal preachers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick. MLK ended his famous speech “I Have a Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with an invitation for all to “join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Baptist churches, because they were among the very few organizations in society where African Americans had relative freedom and control, played a central role in the civil rights movement. African American pastors could speak out about racism without fear of losing their jobs. This was the language of the 1960s African American community, and it became the language of hope for the equality crusades of future generations.

If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
—Martin Luther King Jr, “A Time to Break Silence,” 1967

Who Owns This Language?

Guardianship of civil rights discourse is understandably a contentious issue. Who gets to use it? Where should it be appropriated? Who gets to decide?

For twenty years, the most important battle in the civil rights field has been for the control of the language.
—Daniel Rodgers, quoted in The Language of Contention by Sidney Tarrow, 2013

Some argue that in the decades following the civil rights movement, conservatives laid claim to the language of civil rights that once threatened their status quo. But the way they used it ignored its collective nature and focused on the rights of the individual, thus weakening its power to rally meaningful social action. This could be seen as part of the gentrification of black history. Terms like “color blindness” that were meant to describe a society free of racial discrimination were hijacked by the conservative movement and used in rhetoric opposing affirmative action, as discussed in a Salon article last year.

Others say that US civil rights discourse has depth and reach beyond its original aim. It is inextricably linked to international human rights, anchored by concepts of human dignity, justice, and equality. The language is not owned by anyone and has the scope to empower all social justice campaigns. African American women’s writing, in particular, embraces this wider connection.

The Influence of Civil Rights Language

The speeches of Barack Obama, the first black US president, are peppered with references to and influences from Martin Luther King. In striving for both political and social change, Obama evokes King in his speeches and acknowledges that he stands upon his shoulders.

. . . to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
—Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech, 2013

In the same speech, he mirrors King’s use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, to highlight certain ideas and build momentum—Today, we; together, we; For, we; But, we; Together, we.

Obama also conjures King in discussing other topics, such as justice for the middle class:

We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched fifty years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of middle-class life. . . . The position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.
—Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial, 2013

Despite strides in social equality, the language of the civil rights movement has not finished its work. Only this month, one of today’s most influential and wealthy African American women, Beyoncé, drew upon the power struggles of the 1960s in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the video for her song “Formation,” among a series of references to racial inequality is a shot of a newspaper picturing Martin Luther King next to the headline “More than a dreamer.”