Rhetorical devices

Rhetorical devices are used to help Barack Obama create a connection with the audience and encourage the audience to accept his arguments. By using rhetorical devices, the speaker also makes his ideas from Selma Speech more appealing and more memorab…

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Allusions

The speech is filled with allusions to various historical figures and documents and to American values. In this way, the speaker enhances certain ideas and creates a historical link between America’s present and its past.

In the following example, Obama alludes to the Selma march and the reasons why it is worth honoring:

We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.

In this quotation, we can find two allusions, both of which are related to African-American history. The “chastening rod” that Obama mentions is an allusion to the lyric “Bitter the chastening rod” from the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, by John Rosamond Johnson, which is often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem”. This lyric is a reminder of the physical violence endured by African-American slaves who were often beaten by their owners as a form of punishment. The purpose of the allusion is to connect the image of the violent clashes between police forces and the marchers at Selma with the historical violence endured by African Americans.

The speaker then mentions how the men and women who marched followed their North Star – this is an allusion to fugitive slaves, who would often make their escape by travelling towards the northern American states (where slavery was illegal), following the North Star. Through this allusion, Obama emphasizes the dangers faced by those who marched and their courage to pursue freedom despite these dangers. 

Obama talks about the purpose of those w…

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Direct references

Obama begins his speech by presenting an image of the day when the Selma march started. He states that the marchers “comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung: No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you; Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.”. By directly referencing the hymn “God Will Take Care of  You” by Civilla Martin, Obama reminds the audience that the marchers believed they would be protected by God.

To express the historical importance and the revolutionary character of t…

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Direct address

The speaker uses direct adress in different sections of his speech. The first time we encounter direct address is when he calls upon those who doubt that America has changed since the Selma march. He challenges them to ask those around them:

If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool (…) Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud n…

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Imagery and metaphors

Obama uses powerful imagery at the start of his speech, to show the tension in the air right before the Selma march started: “The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear.”

To help the audience understand the violence that occurred at the march, Obama creates imagery through the following phrases:

We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching toward justice.

Here, Obama uses powerful imagery through phrases such as “the gush of blood and splintered bone”. He also uses the metaphor of the “North Star” to suggest the marchers’ ideals and hopes for equality.

The speaker also uses metaphorical language to show that the determination and unity of the marchers eventually payed off  and President Johnson could not ignore their efforts: “In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson.”

The speech is rich in metaphors. In particular, the speaker uses four metaphors to r…

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Parallelism

In the Selma speech by Barack Obama, we can also find some examples of parallelism - the repeated use of a grammatical structure.

For example, Obama uses the following parallel phrases to highlight the nation’s ideals: “a just America, a fair America, an inclusive America, a generous America”.

To explain the hardship of those who marched and to stir the audience’s compassion, Obama uses three simple, yet powerful, parallel phrases: “Their faith was questioned. The…

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Repetition and enumeration

The speaker uses enumeration and repetition several times to underline and explain various ideas in his speech.

For example, Obama reminds the audience about the purpose of their gathering at Edmund Pettus Bridge: “We gather here to celebrate them. We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans.”. The repetition of the phrase “We gather here” makes this an example of anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases). This is meant to emphasize the importance of the …

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Rhetorical questions

In his Selma speech, Barack Obama often uses rhetorical questions to emphasize self-evident truths and make the speech more impressive.

For example, when talking about the Selma march, Obama asks: “And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?”. This rhetorical question emphasizes the idea that the march’s ideals – freedom and equality, as well as the marchers’ courage and perseverence, represent the perfect expression of the American spirit.

Obama comments further on those who marched and their humble origins, with another rhetorical question: “What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people (…) coming together to shape their country’s course?”. This helps Obama show that when simple people, with humble backgrounds, stand un…

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