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Political Speech, Eulogy, Compassionate Plea, Decisive Moment

Anon E. Moose May 30, 2013 poliTics , Written or Spoken Word

The following rhetorical analysis attempts to understand and characterize the impact of Robert F. Kennedy’s historic speech on April 4th, 1968—the day civil-rights torchbearer and spiritual leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Through placing Kennedy in Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, this analysis will reveal how his timely plea was able to help dissuade over 95,000 black citizens in Indianapolis from rioting and engaging in violence for retribution, and ultimately helped solidify the post-MLK civil-rights movement under the cultural ideals of nonviolent integration of races, equality, and social justice. The analysis will discuss how Kennedy responds to competing exigencies by adapting his content and genre to his audience, and how he uses his tremendous ethos and pathos to assert unifying American values that continue to endure today. Ultimately, Kennedy reveals the immense rhetorical importance of empathy during a moment of great loss, and proves that mere words can halt violence and create new opportunities for cooperation despite tremendous constraints.

Contextualizing the Eulogy to MLK Scholarly Context and Original Contribution Utilizing the Rhetorical Situation as Theoretical Grounding Analysis of Kennedy’s Speech: A Campaign Speech and Eulogy Analytic Conclusions and Implications Final Conclusions

Few moments in American history resonate as loudly and have impacted the course of the nation as thoroughly as the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. On this day, communities across the nation writhed in loss of a spiritual leader and champion of social justice. With the death of King, many feared his non-violent movement suffered a mortal wound as well. In those moments proceeding the assassination, few possessions but words then stood between peaceful mourning and calls for bloodshed. Violence erupted in one hundred and ten American cities, resulting in dozens of deaths, thousands of injuries, and extensive damages to homes, businesses, and national confidence for a peaceful civil-rights resolution. Yet the words of one individual, well placed in the situation, had an impact that would help redefine a nation.

The analysis will proceed by first introducing the historic context of Kennedy’s speech, providing the relevant details to understand the complexities of the national social and political climate at the time. Next, the scholarly context reflects on previous scholarly works that have attempted to comprehend why Kennedy’s speech was so powerfully able to diffuse violence that seemed imminent. This section will also provide an explanation of important terms and include a preview of the original contribution intended through this exploration. Moving into the analysis portion, the theoretical grounding will provide a framework to evaluate Kennedy’s response to competing exigencies through a combination of adapting the content and genre of his speech, focusing on the immediate exigency, and utilizing historically accumulated ethos and pathos to quell the rage of the crowd. Afterwards, the full implications of Kennedy’s words can be understood, which allows for reflection on the importance of this speech in understanding rhetoric, it’s influence on U.S. culture, and the meaning of freedom in a democracy. Finally this discussion will conclude with a restatement of the thesis, as well as a review of the major claims that have been presented.

Contextualizing the Eulogy to MLK

On April 4 th , 1968, Democratic Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was already scheduled to speak at a political rally in Indianapolis, where a tightly gathered crowd gathered waiting to here from him; many did not know King had been assassinated (Thomas, 2012). The national social climate was one of open hostility, mistrust, and fear anchored between African American and White populations across the U.S. With a backdrop of mounting racial tensions and rioting, the Vietnam War, and clashes between peace demonstrators and police, this was an election year already scared by violence (Stuckey). Before his historic remarks on this day, Robert Kennedy had already established himself as an advocate for civil rights, social justice, and promoter of non-aggression and peace; he was running as a late entrant in the Presidential race, content to rely on popular support to win the Democratic nomination (Remarks). The Senator from New York was already in route to his last campaign stop of the day—an inner-city, mostly black audience awaiting—when he learned that the spiritual leader of the civil rights movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, had been shot and had recently died that evening (Anatol). Ignoring the advice of aids, whom understandably feared the possibility of riots and for the safety of their candidate, Kennedy insisted on delivering a short (extemporaneous) message to those in attendance (Anatol). Instead of a campaign speech, Kennedy’s somber eulogy would inform some in the audience of King’s death for the first time; you can hear shocked-horror in the voice of the crowd moments after Kennedy begins speaking (Kennedy). By the time this speech was made, Kennedy had become known as “a leading spokesman for the urban and rural poor,” (Rohler 2002, Remarks 1968). Only Kennedy, of all American white candidates, ventured into black districts immediately after King’s death (Stuckey). The assassination directly led to riots and violence across “110 cities causing 39 deaths and injuring 2,500,” while the city of Indianapolis (with a significant black urban population of around 95,000) where Kennedy had spoken was quiet (Thomas, 2007).

Scholarly Context and Original Contribution

Previous analysis succeed in explaining the rhetorical effectiveness of Kennedy on the day of MLK’s assassination, identifying rhetorical tools at Kennedy’s disposal such as the American Jeremiad, or hinting at how Kennedy “created a new or accentuated an already existing image” among the black community (Anatol, Murphy). Karl Anatol and John Bittner attempt to understand the effectiveness of Kennedy’ eulogy in preventing violence in Indianapolis, and was published shortly after the tragic event. The authors attempt to contextualize the speech and discover why precisely his rhetoric had the effect it did. The critical observation made in this analysis is that “violence and riots can be averted (with the use of rhetoric), and that cross-cultural communication is a necessary step” when dealing with civil rights issues. In the critical analysis entitled “A Time of Shame and Sorrow,” John Murphy analyzes the strengths and weakness of using and altering the Jeremiad as a “response to a social crisis.” This article shows how Kennedy is rhetorically successful in producing immediate change through a powerful induction of the Jeremiad, but also identifies how using the Jeremiad may have limited the direct impact of Kennedy’s goal for social action in support of civil rights. The author argues that Kennedy’ speech acted as “communal definition” for his audience “in order to enable the community understand itself and its values”. This analysis will utilize Bitzer’s rhetorical situation as a model to gauge Kennedy’s rhetorical success at the time of his speech, and explain how this moment came to define a turning point, not only for the candidate, but also for the installation of a common American value favoring peaceful integration of races and civil rights action. Further, the analysis will demonstrate how a combination of rhetorical vehicles (unique placement in the situation, strong pathos and ethos, defining common values) can situate an individual to yield a rhetorical power that can influence immediate decisions in a crisis, as well as cultural values far into the future. Finally, by looking at the situation and the rhetoric as a whole, as well as considering the immediate and long-term outcomes, we can better define the meaning of Freedom in a Democracy.

Utilizing the Rhetorical Situation as Theoretical Grounding

In order to frame the persuasive appeal made by Kennedy, an understanding of certain rhetorical vehicles and definitions is necessary. Lloyd Bitzer introduced the rhetorical situation as, “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence, which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (Bitzer). Bitzer identifies three essential characteristics that are important to the rhetorical moment. Exigency can be simply understood as “an imperfection marked by urgency,” where there is an existing opportunity for rhetoric to shape reality and decision-making (Hart). The rhetorical moment is further defined by both the audience and whether the implementation of rhetoric is addressed to an audience that is able to act in order to resolve an issue, and the constraints of the situation, or ideas, objects, and other limitations that stand in the way resolving the issue at hand (Bitzer).

While this framework provides essential characteristics in order to evaluate a speaker’s success in just about any derived moment, it has been criticized for under clarifying the many complexities that arise with multiple audiences and multiple exigencies that may exist simultaneously—as is the case for Kennedy. For these reasons a reconstruction of Bitzer’ model was performed by Craig Smith and Scott Lybarger in an article entitled “Bitzer’s Model Reconstructed.” They contested that exigence is “more akin to…motive than to purpose; it is more transcendent both in terms of how the speaker derived a purpose, to what problem the speaker is addressing his/her speech, and to what extent the speaker achieves congruence with her/his audience” (Craig and Lybarger). It is this modification and other refinements of Bitzer’s original theory that allows further consideration of the plurality of perspectives in each situation; “Just as a speaker may have more than one controlling motive, so too a situation may have more than one exigence” (Craig and Lybarger). Ethos and pathos, from the Aristotelian rhetorical situation, are also vitally important rhetorical tools utilized by Kennedy in order to achieve his multifaceted objectives of quelling violence and winning an election. For the purposes of this analysis, the traditional definition of these terms is sufficient for understanding the underlying claims. Ethos, refers to the credibility or trustworthiness of the author’s perspective, while pathos refers is an emotional appeal to the sensibilities of the audience.

Analysis of Kennedy’s Speech: A Campaign Speech and Eulogy

Kennedy, placed in Bitzer’s rhetorical situation, responds to multiple exigencies amidst enormous constraints in an attempt prevent further violence, and rally commitment to a peaceful democratic solution (which he represents as a presidential candidate). Kings death leaves an exigency of crisis to decide between violent or nonviolent resistance, while a competing exigency of the upcoming (country defining) presidential election also complicates the situation. The influence of Kennedy’s words can be attributed to the speaker-audience relationship and content/delivery choices that were made that evening. When Kennedy stepped in front of the podium and microphone, many were expecting to hear a campaign speech. As he promptly delivers the shocking news, it is apparent almost immediately that the small group of mostly black urbanites is not listening to a political stump, rather a eulogy and appeal for compassion and non-violence (Kennedy). Kennedy acknowledges the immediate exigency, the probability of violence, even before he informs the crowd of Dr. King’s death. He asks people in the audience to please lower their signs and says, “I have…sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world” (39 Years). Staying clear of political language and any form of accusation, RFK’s remarks pay tribute to MLK, recognize the anger/hate/mistrust between the races, call for understanding, and emphasize broad ideals such as understanding, wisdom, and justice for those who suffer…“whether they be white, or whether they be black” (39 Years). Coupled with the extemporaneous nature of the remarks, Kennedy appears genuine, caring, and as a voice of leadership and reason amidst one of the most catalytic events of our time. A successful genre switch from campaign speech to eulogy makes it possible for him to leave out any acknowledgement of the competing exigency of the up coming presidential election, while instilling his voice as one of authority who will act for social justice.  Kennedy frames the exigency to his immediate audience as a choice between two future directions (characterized as either bitter and filled with hatred and violence, or of love, wisdom, and compassion) that can be made individually by returning home “to say a prayer for our own country” (39 Years). This framing is effective because it addresses both the immediate concern at hand, and the prospects for long term integration of white and black populations that would later reflect on Kennedy’s words. The constraints at the time seemed so insurmountable that close advisors warned Kennedy not to give his speech for fear of immediate retributive acts. Individuals were in the midst of planning violent insurrection in Indianapolis in response to king’s death, and riots had already begun in places where Kennedy’s words could not reach. But Kennedy shows that verbalizing the existing conditions, being adaptable and framing choices in values terms can help a rhetor respond to competing exigencies.

Kennedy focuses his rhetoric on the immediate exigency using historically accumulated ethos and pathos to win over his varied audiences in the disenfranchised black community, and ultimately in his Democratic constituency as well. Kennedy uses his ethos as a defender of the “invisible poor” and of civil justice to establish a critical dialog during a moment of crisis. Bolstered by past successes as an attorney, and his relationship with former President John F. Kennedy, historic reflection reveals Kennedy was the only white candidate who could traverse the inner black neighborhoods directly after the assassination, demonstrating he had established an intimate connection with the black community and reached a difficult status to attain of “trusted politician” (Stucky). Pathos is used in his message to establish an intimate bond with his audience at a critical moment. Kennedy begins his speech by saying he has “sad news for all of you.” He repeats this twice, and goes on to include “people who love peace all over the world,” broadening his audience as far as possible. In furthering his attempt at emotional linkage with his audience, he goes on to say “I had a member of my family killed,” referencing the death of his brother for the first time publically (37 Years). This establishes a critical link of empathy with the audience, letting them know that he literally feels the injustice that they feel. With several rhetorical vehicles now working in tandem, Kennedy is now in a position to make values assertions, “what we need in the United States is…compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer, whether they be white or whether they be black” (37 Years). Immediately after he says this, he makes his plea for people to return home, and reiterates a message of compassion. This emphasis on compassion, the “feeling” for those who suffer, and the affect it had on the audience shows the importance of empathy as a catalyst (or bridge) to shaping reality to create the conditions for new decision opportunities. Near the end, Kennedy defines his audience as a “vast majority [of white and black people who] want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all” (37 Years). Kennedy gives individuals listening an alternative path from bloodshed, allowing people to visualize a future of equality, while subtly reassuring the black community that their interests could still be addressed through systematic reform rather than violent uprising. While Kennedy’s historic ethos and unique position as a presidential candidate make him an ideal respondent in the moment, his establishment of empathy, and subsequent use as a vehicle for inducing cooperation (in this case preventing a devastated crowd from becoming an enraged mob and hence an example for the rest of the U.S.) is a critical factor in a peaceful democracy

Analytic Conclusions and Implications

With clear successes both defusing violence in Indianapolis, going on to win the election primaries he sought, and subsequently being violently murdered, Kennedy shows his policies and convictions were having a significant affect on the social and political landscape—though he was eliminated before implementing his blueprint for civil-rights action. These considerations help reveal that Kennedy was the only one situated in the rhetorical moment that could represent both of the vastly opposing white and black constituencies he faced that evening, and at the same time mediate the continued path to civil-rights action. The city of Indianapolis was moved and dissuaded from violence upon hearing Kennedy’s brief remarks on unity and path forward; the crowd quietly dispersed, and individuals decided not to take part in riots that would mire 110 other cities, leading to dozens of deaths, and thousands of injuries. Seven days later, congress would pass the “landmark” civil rights legislation of 1968. Despite an election cycle that started late, and was mired in defining itself in the beginning, Kennedy went on to win the Democratic primary during the election of 1968 before he was shot and killed; however, the country did not descend into violent insurrection, but rather maintained a course for peaceful integration of races.

Kennedy’s plea for movement away from division and hatred and towards understanding, justice, peace and love, would deeply impact the nation, and go on to shape the ideals embodied in Democratic values. Kennedy, in the midst of his greatest push for change in support of civil rights and social justice policies (as a candidate for president), died for his cause in close succession with MLK and JFK, putting him in the same class as these mythic figures, and making him a martyr for civil rights liberties. His name is memorialized and displayed along side King’s today at the Landmark for peace in Indianapolis, the Kennedy-King College, and numerous others. Kennedy’s speech is considered a defining turning point for his campaign, because of the dire circumstances and the leadership shown in attempts to unite a divided country. He leaves a legacy referred to as “the 82 days that inspired America” (O’Rourke). This analysis shows that while it may be particularly difficult to align the many rhetorical vehicles that allow for persuasion to occur, some individuals are particularly situated to inspire massive shifts in public perceptions and dedication to an idea; in this case the civil-rights values of peace, equality, and justice. Kennedy may indeed have been the only one that could have turned America away from division and further mass violence at this critical moment, and to rally the population around a new cultural identity the believes in the path to non-violent integration, equality, and social action despite great fear and threats to peace. Kennedy’s eulogy to MLK proves a high regard for the value of rhetoric in both crisis situations, and in shaping American ideals. This fact further substantiates the notion that our democratic system can be responsive and adaptable to required social change with appropriate responses in moments of tremendous upheaval.

Kennedy’s words were needed at that moment, not because there was a political decision to make, but because the nation needed to piece together what was happening at that cathartic moment in time. Because of his credibility, he could stand in front of a potentially hostile, all black crowd after the death of Dr. King disregarding all concerns for safety. Because he established a deep empathy with his audience, he was able to preach the values of compassion and feeling for others as central on the path to peaceful integration. In these ways, Kennedy was an agent of the kind of understanding he was calling for, and his audience accepted him as a neutral peace negotiator instead of political contender. This shows that the most influential rhetoric can come about through highly constrained situations, where only few voices prove effective by relying on a complicated balance of situational effectiveness and the use of rhetorical tools. Kennedy’s rhetorical messages of equality and civil liberty espoused during life, becomes enshrined in Democratic principles upon his death, evidenced by the use of his past speech and name shaping current Democratic ideals.

Final Conclusions

Robert F. Kennedy, through keen awareness and unique positioning, finds himself in a situation where he is the only one able to respond to the multiple exigencies that exist in the nation. He puts himself in a position to appeal directly to the audiences that can change the situation, and overcomes significant constraints in uniting two polar constituencies, the black audience, and a mostly white electorate who was also listening. The adaptation of content and successful genre shift allows Kennedy to assert his historically accumulated ethos and pathos in order to inform, console, and provide a path away from violence. Through establishing a deeply rooted empathy in verbally expressing his own unjust loss, Kennedy’s words help elucidate a rarely articulated aspect underlying the agreement to governance—that feeling for an other is foundational to peaceful democracy. Kennedy’s rhetoric goes on to define the Democratic ideals espoused in the modern politic of civil-rights.

The wake of King’s death released a tremendous exigency that had already been building as the result of decades of systematic enslavement and oppression, with the idea of non-violent integration at a seeming end, and the civil-rights movement transitioning to a violent path. All this changed when Kennedy reached out to a divided nation in order to reshape the conditions and choices that would be made in the aftermath of King’s death. Ultimately, Kennedy reveals the immense rhetorical importance of empathy during a moment of great loss, and proves that mere words can halt violence and create new opportunities for cooperation despite tremendous constraints. Concluding on the notion that ideas are integrally linked, Kennedy performs a kind of rhetorical surgery in order to save an Idea, whose loss could tear apart a nation.

Citations and References

Smith, Craig R., and Scott Lybarger. “Bitzer’s Model Reconstructed.” Communication Quarterly 44.2 (1996): 197-213. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Rohler, Lloyd. “In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey Of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.1 (2002): 192-195. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

O’Rourke, Sean Patrick. “Bobby.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 12.4 (2009): 635-654. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Thomas, Evan. “The Worst Week.” Newsweek 150.21 (2007): 44-48. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

Stuckey, Mary E., and Frederick J. Antczak. “Campaign And Character: Robert Kennedy In The 1968 Presidential Campaign.” Conference Proceedings — National Communication Association/American Forensic Association (Alta Conference On Argumentation) (1991): 140-146. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Murphy, John M. “‘A Time Of Shame And Sorrow’: Robert F. Kennedy And The American Jeremiad.” Quarterly Journal Of Speech 76.4 (1990): 401. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Anatol, Karl W., and John R. Bittner. “Kennedy On King: The Rhetoric Of Control.” Today’s Speech 16.3 (1968): 31-34. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

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This is a rhetorical analysis of Robert F. Kennedy's famous, impromptu speech following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

How RFK Kept a Country United

During the late 1960’s, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing throughout the country, America was undergoing a massive cultural shift. Racial conflict occurred throughout the American south while African-Americans throughout the country rallied around leaders with the goal of achieving true equality. When Martin Luther King Jr., arguably the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, was shot and killed on April 4th, 1968, the world stood aghast. Robert F. Kennedy, the leading Democratic candidate for the 1968 election, was scheduled for a routine tour stop in Indianapolis on April 4th when he heard of King’s death. Rather than taking the safer option and simply cancelling the stop as the local police advised ("Robert Kennedy: Delivering News of King's Death", NPR), RFK gave an impromptu speech to a largely African-American crowd in the city of Indianapolis in which he broke the news on MLK’s death. Although the chief of police in the area warned Kennedy of anticipated riots following the speech, none occurred in Indianapolis as they did in other cities around the country ("The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Words of Robert Kennedy", The Campaign for America’s Libraries). Despite the brevity and improvised nature of the speech, Robert F. Kennedy was able to carry on Dr. King’s message through a multitude of rhetorical devices and effectively quell an emotionally distraught audience in hopes of keeping America united.

After Kennedy informs the audience of the devastating news, the screams and gasps that ensue illustrate the evident emotional charge within the crowd. However, through the use of both logos and pathos appeals, Kennedy effectively levels with the audience and preaches Dr. King’s non-violent message. When Kennedy asks the audience “Could you lower those signs please?” (Kennedy, “Remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”) in reference to the political signs in support of him, he immediately removes any political elements from the speech. Instead of speaking as a politician attempting to garner support, Kennedy is speaking as a fellow human being and effectively removes any superiority he may have had over the audience. In placing himself in the position of the crowd, Kennedy adds a human element to the speech that allows him to promote a message of peace. Kennedy appeals to his audience on emotional level later in the speech when he mentions the assassination of his brother, John F. Kennedy, which occurred only five years prior. He does not bring this up with the purpose of evoking sympathy from the crowd, but instead—as Michelle Lozano notes in her analysis of the speech—to “[connect] with the audience’s feeling of grief” (Lozano, "Robert F. Kennedy's Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr."). Kennedy seldom spoke publicly about the death of his brother (NPR), so his mentioning of it during this speech demonstrates his intent to truly connect with his audience, and this emotional connection with his audience allows him to utilize logos appeals to continue Dr. King’s message of peace. For instance, Kennedy brings up the death of his brother not only to reach his audience emotionally, but to also “demonstrate to the crowd that crime is not solely white on black, or black on white, but that it has no limits, and no one is excluded” (Lozano). Kennedy employs this logic-based argument not only to suppress the hatred brewing inside of the emotionally charged audience, but also to ultimately diffuse racial tension between white and black people in the country. Since his audience evidently supports Dr. King and his non-violent movement, Kennedy utilizes a logical appeal in encouraging them to continue this movement. He explicitly lays out two options: moving “in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another” or “[making] an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence… with an effort to understand, compassion, and love” (Kennedy). By overtly listing the two directions in which the country can head, Kennedy utilizes a logical appeal to convince the audience that hatred is simply not constructive for the country’s well-being and that they should instead continue to follow the message of Dr. King. Because Kennedy’s emotional appeals add a genuinely human element to this speech, his logos appeals are that much more effective. It’s the combination of these two rhetorical techniques that allows Kennedy to quell this fiery crowd and ultimately keep the country from moving “in greater polarization” (Kennedy).

Although Kennedy was unmistakably affected by the death of Martin Luther King, he still provides a wise, calming voice as he addresses his audience. Through intentional repetition and an allusion to an ancient Greek poem, Kennedy is able to promote unity in a time when racism divided the country. For example, Kennedy intentionally alternates the pronouns “you” and “we” in order to unify the audience. After he acknowledges that “you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge”, Kennedy follows up with “We can move in that direction…we can make an effort…spread across our land….” (Kennedy) In using the pronouns “we” and “our” to his majority black audience, Kennedy groups himself with the crowd and seeks to expunge racial barriers, which provides a sort of comfort to a crowd that just underwent a tragic loss and also works towards his ultimate goal of keeping the country united. Kennedy further unifies the audience later in the speech through the use of anaphora when he repeats “What we need in the United States is not….” (Kennedy) By using this repetition, Kennedy is able to explicitly list what action the country does and does not need to take in order to stay unified as a nation. This call to action of sorts also works to unite the people in that the pronoun “we” insinuates that they must work together in order to mend the country’s racial division. When Kennedy reads an excerpt from a poem by the Greek poet Aeschylus, he offers wise words of advice to an audience that is in desperate need of guidance. The poem imbues hope in the audience when it says that “wisdom through the awful grace of God” will come after “pain which cannot forget…” (Kennedy). Through the words of a reputable ancient Greek poet, Kennedy is able to instill comfort in an audience that has experienced tragedy. Despite Kennedy’s evident remorse over Dr. King’s death, he still manages to provide comfort and guidance to an audience that desperately needs it.

Although Kennedy was pressed for time when he quickly wrote the speech on the ride to Indianapolis, he manages to effectively use time in the form of kairos appeals to further his goal of keeping the nation united. Since Kennedy was the first one to break the news of Dr. King’s death to the crowd, he was able to speak of peace and unity before anyone impetuously reacted. Considering the fact that no riots took place in Indianapolis as they did in other major cities around the nation, the timing of the speech worked well for Kennedy as he was able to deter potential rioters by urging them to continue Dr. King’s peaceful message. Since the crowd had only minutes before been informed of their fallen leader and there was an evident sense of urgency, Kennedy’s words resonated more with them. When he proclaims that “We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times” (Kennedy), a sense of urgency is implied that would cause the crowd to heed his words. Kennedy also utilizes kairos appeals towards the end of the speech when he asks the audience to “tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King… say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke” (Kennedy). In asking that the audience go home and pray that night, Kennedy subtly encourages them to take action and continue Dr. King’s message.

Despite the speech being mostly improvised and delivered on the back of a flatbed truck, Robert F. Kennedy’s “Remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” is widely considered one of the greatest speeches of all time and is what journalist Joe Klein refers to as “politics in its grandest form and highest purpose.” (qtd. in "The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Words of Robert Kennedy.") Kennedy blatantly ignored the advice of both his aides and the Indianapolis police and ventured into the city’s ghetto without a police escort to deliver news that was expected to immediately spark riots throughout the area (NPR)--and did it all for the sake of the country. Due to the timing of the speech, his calm and guiding voice, and his combination of emotional and logical appeals, Kennedy was able to prevent riots from occurring in the city after speaking for only slightly longer than two minutes. Although Kennedy was assassinated only two months after delivering these remarks (NPR), there’s no denying the profound effects that this speech had on the unity of the country.

Works Cited

"The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Words of Robert Kennedy." The Campaign for America's Libraries. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. < http://atyourlibrary.org/culture/assassination-martin-luther-king-jr-and-words-robert-kennedy>.Kennedy, Robert F. "Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." Speech. Indianapolis. 04 Apr. 1968. American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.Lozano, Michelle. "Robert F. Kennedy's Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." Web log post. Mr. Newman's Digital Rhetorical Symposium. Blogspot, 5 Oct. 2010. Web. 1 Oct. 2013. < http://newmanrhetoric.blogspot.com/2010/10/robert-f-kennedys-remarks-on.html>. "Robert Kennedy: Delivering News of King's Death." NPR. NPR, 04 Apr. 2008. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. < http://www.npr.org/2008/04/04/89365887/robert-kennedy-delivering-news-of-kings-death>.

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rhetorical analysis of robert kennedy's speech

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UPDATED Rhetorical Analysis Readings & Activities Unit - AP English Lang & Comp

rhetorical analysis of robert kennedy's speech

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Originally Olivia

MLK eulogy rhetorical analysis

I decided to explore a different topic from the one that I wrote about in last week’s WIP blog. My new topic is Robert Kennedy’s Eulogy of Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy successfully employs the appeals of pathos, logos, and ethos by acknowledging the emotional distress of the audience, telling the audience to stay calm for sake of the country, and convincing the audience to remain civil through the credibility of his personal story and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. For example, the line, “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort” evokes emotion because King dedicated his life to a cause he was passionate about through peaceful acts only to be murdered, at the hands of a white man. Kennedy tries to quell the anger and bitterness that this act caused, especially in the black community, by explaining that we have the power to either divide the country or keep ourselves unified, we cannot afford to take the route of “greater polarize.” In order to persuade the audience to listen to his plea, he bolsters his credibility by stating that he felt the same emotions, when his brother was assassinated, as the crowd feels due to the King assassination. The appeals that Kennedy employs effectively convey his goal to calm the audience.

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Rhetorical Analysis Of Robert Kennedy's Speech

On the back of a pickup truck in Indiana, Democratic Presidential candidate and Senator Robert Kennedy gave an unprepared speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr, who had been assassinated hours earlier. Saddened by the news of a close Civil Rights ally's passing, Kennedy spoke to the Civil Rights supporters and potential voters while on the election trail to console them and honor their fallen leader. In his speech, Senator Robert Kennedy uses personal references, strong repeated phrases, and calm words to console the African-American people nationwide.

To support his audience upon hearing the news of King's death, Kennedy used strong repeated phrases. One phrase he repeated was, "You could be filled with hate, you could be bitter, and you could want revenge." Kennedy uses this quote to clarify to build an emotional connection with his audience. He wants the Civil Rights supporters to understand that he feels and relates to their pain and is by their side in the continued fight for justice. Another repeated idea that he uses to console his audience is "prayer." Religion is an essential factor in Kennedy's life, Reverend King's life, and the Civil Rights Movement. Kennedy highlights prayer because it reminds his audience of a position of strength and perseverance. At the same time, it symbolizes Reverend King's lifelong commitment to peace and prayer, both as a religious and social leader. By consistently praying for the situation, Kennedy honors King's life goals and comforts his audience.

King uses personal references to express sympathy with his audience after hearing that their famous leader had been attacked and killed. To find common ground with his audience, Kennedy wrote, "Someone in my family was killed. He was killed by a white man, too." Kennedy uses this quote to continue his sympathetic connection with his audience while also revealing personal details to make himself seem vulnerable and approachable. This quote opens himself up to his audience, connecting his message to them, and shows them that losing someone they look up to and admire can feel like a knife through the chest, but it will eventually heal, as Kennedy healed. Another reference he uses is, "We have had difficult times in the past." This quote emphasizes how dire the previous situations have been, that leaders have died before and battles have ended in defeat and death before. However, with perseverance and determination, Kennedy assures that history works itself out. Moreover, Kennedy uses this quote to inspire his audience with the hope they desperately need. Like an army that has lost its general, Kennedy consoled his audience by citing all they have already overcome. Finally, Kennedy quoted a Greek poet, "pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop on the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes the wisdom through the awful grace of God." This quote connects the pain of losing their leader, the "pain drop by drop," to the end of segregation, "the wisdom." Kennedy uses this quote because of its personal meaning; it provided him solace when his brother died, and he wants to share some of that comfort with his audience by promising a "happy ending, some wisdom in the end." Overall, Kennedy uses personal references to remind his audience that the pain is temporary.

Kennedy uses calming words to help his audience heal after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. One use of calming words is when he wrote, "We could have kindness and love instead." Senator Kennedy uses this to caution his audience against acting out in anger, the opposite of what Martin Luther King would have wanted. Instead, Kennedy urges his audience to seek peace because he knows that if they act out of anger, they will fail in their cause and would not find peace about King's death. Kennedy could have told them no break stores and riot, but he chose not to. Conversely, Kennedy chose to calm them with kindness because he knew from experience that the only way to recover from this loss would be to accept it. Another choice that Kennedy uses to calm his audience is when he wrote, "We need to have fair treatment under the law for those who still suffer within our country." Kennedy recognizes that another pathway to solace for the grieving civil rights supporters is to fight in Dr. King's name and continue fighting for a more equal society. He encourages them to fight in DC because he knows the motivation will help them get over King's death. Accordingly, he uses terms like "fair" and "under the law" to attack political policy in the US at the time. Kennedy wants to make his secondary audience, the Washington lawmakers, feel guilty that they have not done enough to help the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, Kennedy hopes that by creating this sense of guilt, the lawmakers will acknowledge their lack of initiative and create laws that honor Dr. King's purpose and pave the way for a more equal society.  Backed by the motivated Civil Rights movement, Kennedy highlights that Washington and African-Americans must work together to honor Martin Luther King and fight for justice as a way to comfort his audience. Overall, Kennedy uses calm words to comfort African-Americans after Martin Luther King Jr's death and creates multiple pathways to solace with his word choice.

To console Martin Luther King Jr supporters and honor Dr. King's legacy, Senator Robert Kennedy used powerful repetitive phrases, personal references, and calming words in his off-the-cuff speech. He built a connection with his listeners by tying their emotions together and showing their similar histories. His choice to calm rather than incite violence strengthened the resolve of the African-American community and led them to peace. Robert Kennedy was a true champion for Civil Rights and ally of Martin Luther King Jr, which he shows through his speech and legislation. Altogether, Kennedy effectively honors King.

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Masters Theses

A rhetorical analysis of robert f. kennedy's speaking on the issue of peace in vietnam, as revealed in his kansas address, "conflict in vietnam".

Jeanine I. Rishel , Eastern Illinois University

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion

Thesis director.

B. F. McClerren

Many Americans have marshaled their rhetoric to support or to denounce the Vietnam war. One of the most insistent voices heard was that of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Hypothesis . It was the hypothesis of this study that Robert Francis Kennedy’s speaking on the issue of peace in Vietnam was intelligent and responsible.

Statement of Purpose . The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis by analyzing and evaluating “Conflict in Vietnam,” a speech delivered by Robert Kennedy in Manhattan, Kansas on March 18, 1968. This particular speech was selected for the following reasons: (1) The speech stated a clear position on Kennedy’s stand in Vietnam; (2) Textual authenticity was established by a tape recording; (3) The audience could be identified; and (4) The speech was credited with launching Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Materials . The primary sources used to gain information about Kennedy, the issues with which he dealt, and the society to which he spoke, were: Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change (New York: Pocket Books, 1968); R. F. K.: His Life and Death (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968); Kahin and Lewis’ The U. S. in Vietnam (New York: Dial Press, 1967); Joseph Buttinger’s The Smaller Dragon (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958); and Nguyen Van-Thai and Nguyen Van-Mung’s A Short History of Vietnam (Vietnam: Times Publishing Co., 1958).

Criteria and Procedure . The particular criteria used in this study were derived from those used by Tau Kappa Alpha in selecting their recipient for Speaker-of-the-year award. Two major questions were constructed, in order to aid and direct the analysis of the selected speech: (1) Was Robert Kennedy’s speaking intelligent? and (2) Was Robert Kennedy’s speaking responsible?

  • What were the assumptions upon which the speech was based?
  • What was the speaker’s purpose and what were the main ideas set forth in the speech?
  • Were the ideas warranted by the evidence used in the speech?
  • Were the ideas well adapted to the audience?
  • Did the speaker reveal an awareness of the social consequences of his speech?
  • Was the speech free from demagoguery and charlatanism as shown by content, language, and delivery?

Conclusions . There are several conclusions which can be drawn after the analysis of the speech of Robert Kennedy, given at Kansas State University, March 18, 1968.

1. From Robert Kennedy’s assumption that the United States policy in Vietnam was wrong and from his following seven main ideas, one could determine his speaking intelligent. Kennedy’s seven main ideas were:

a. Escalations have brought the U. S. no closer to success than we were before.

b. American control over the rural population in Vietnam has evaporated.

c. Recently, the Saigon government is no better an ally than it was before.

d. Victories that America achieves will only come at the cost of destruction for the nation we once hoped to help.

e. The war in Vietnam is weakening the U. S. position in Asia and around the world.

f. The highest price the U. S. is paying is cost in our inner-most lives and the spirit of our country.

g. The U. S. must negotiate with the National Liberation Front, begin to deescalate the war, and insist that the government of South Vietnam broaden its base, before an end will come to the war.

These ideas all basically implied that unless a change did take place in U. S. involvement, there would be no end to the war in Vietnam. The ideas were appended to general American beliefs about war, peace, survival of self and of country.

Also, Robert Kennedy’s speaking can be determined intelligent by his expressions of good-will and demonstrations of good character.

2. Robert Kennedy’s speaking can be determined responsible from his awareness of military, economic and personal consequences of his speech. Also, there was no evidence of Kennedy revealing characteristics of a demagogue or charlatan.

3. As shown by public opinion polls, it is reasonable to assume that Robert Kennedy’s speaking on the Vietnam issue enhanced his personal and political popularity.

Recommended Citation

Rishel, Jeanine I., "A Rhetorical Analysis of Robert F. Kennedy's Speaking on the Issue of Peace in Vietnam, as Revealed in His Kansas Address, "Conflict in Vietnam"" (1969). Masters Theses . 4156. https://thekeep.eiu.edu/theses/4156

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